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Urgent Action Needed to Avoid Water and Sanitation Crisis in Africa


About one third of the obstacles to achieving the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) are water-related.  Already, water poses a number of challenges for Africa like it does nowhere else in the world.  With only four years left to achieve the MDGs, progress on the continent towards meeting the targets set out is slow and many countries risk missing the mark.

The underdevelopment of water resources and services is at the heart of Africa’s food security, as well as its poor health, energy and power status.  Utilization of water resources for domestic and productive activities is low, with less than five percent of Africa’s surface and groundwater harnessed for all use.  

Mr. Camdessus, the former IMF Managing Director of the IMF and a strong advocate for the development of water and sanitation infrastructure in Africa, warned of the catastrophe that awaits the continent if governments fail to address the issue in the next decade, “Governments must realize that if the situation is serious today, it is likely to gravely worsen in the absence of proper national water strategies and policies” he said.

Around 40 percent of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa still lack access to safe drinking water sources and 69 percent do not have access to improved sanitation facilities.  The situation in rural areas is even worse, with 53 percent and 76 percent not having access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, respectively .  Low access to sanitation and water supply are the root causes of many diseases affecting continent.

According to Mr. Camdessus, access to water and sanitation is a human right, yet numbers show it is not granted to all. “There is great human suffering behind these statistics, which in the end reveal a silent form of injustice that cannot be ignored” he said.

By 2025, Africa’s population is expected to grow to approximately 1.34 billion people and  with uneven distribution of water across the continent, where some areas are already suffering lack of fresh water availability, more than 25 African countries are expected to be subject to water scarcity or water stress, with Northern Africa facing the worst predictions.

Challenges of a Changing Environment

A number of factors are to blame for the slow progress witnessed in the water and sanitation sector in Africa. One is lack of finance.  To keep pace with the growing demand and rapid urbanization, adjustments in financing have become urgent and necessary.  

The investment required to meet Africa’s water needs is estimated at US$50 billion to U$54 billion per year for each of the next twenty years. Forecasts on annual spending, required for the water sector reveal a sizeable financing gap and an increased need for non-traditional funding sources.  Future annual spending on water supply and sanitation is estimated at US$ 21.9 billion, compared with current spending levels of US$ 7.6 billion.  

The gap of US$14.3 billion, which accounts for approximately two percent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) in Sub-Saharan Africa, needs to be taken up more aggressively by concerned governments.  In addition, cost recovery and subsidies based on need should be taken up more vigorously by governments.

On cost recovery, Ma Tsheppo Khumbane, a grassroots development activist and small-scale farmer from South Africa, said “Consumers are willing to pay and participate in supporting the development of the sector, for as long as they are involved and consulted early on, during project preparation.”

Apart from inadequate financing, the development and management of water infrastructure also has a strong trans-boundary dimension that adds to the complexity of water management.  

The Africa has 80 trans-boundary rivers and lake water basins, including 38 groundwater aquifer basins shared by more than one country.  In spite of the support provided by the Bank to Regional Economic Communities and numerous River and Lake Basin Africa Development Organizations, the level of coordination, cooperation and formal agreement on shared water resources is low, further reducing the opportunity to strengthen these burgeoning regional institutions.

Finally, not to be underestimated, the effects of climate change in both urban and rural areas, which have caused problems that are as much institutional, infrastructural as they are environmental.  

The unprecedented frequency of extreme events such as droughts and floods, the steady lowering of groundwater levels, the augmentation of saltwater intrusion to coastal boreholes, the decrease of inland discharges into rivers are all complex environmental problems that require broad institutional and infrastructural climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.  

Despite concerning reports on the progress of the sector in Africa and on the concerning inability for some African regions to cope, countries such s Algeria are taking the lead by putting in place forward looking national strategies that take into account current and future challenges, increasing the chances for the government to be able to deal with a changing demand and circumstances up to 2025.


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