Africa’s water taps running dry

Home » Knowledge » Africa’s water taps running dry

Even as Africa is applauded for its economic growth and development over the last decade several key pillars required for sustainable growth have come under increasing pressure. These are adequate housing, power and transport infrastructure but arguably the one requiring the most urgent intervention is water supply. According to a 2012 water conference dealing with water scarcity in Africa, out of Africa’s 800 million inhabitants over 300 million live without adequate water supply and the situation is expected to deteriorate even further by 2030 with the possible threat of mass displacement of people.

Several reasons have been brought forward to explain Africa’s predicament not least of all being rapid population growth and climate change. In urban areas there is a huge disparity between the cost of clean water for the poor who do not have running water in their homes and the more affluent with the poor paying over 4 times more for water than their rich counterparts. In addition, in the rural areas where the larger portion of the population live, piped water is not available and in many instances women and children spend a large part of their day trekking long distances to fetch water meaning that no economic activities or schooling can be undertaken. The poor quality water that is obtained from pools and streams shared with livestock on the other hand are sources of disease which further compound the problem by having a major impact on the population’s health.

Africa being predominantly an agriculturally based economy, it means that due to inadequate water supply for agricultural production the threat to food security is always just over the horizon and becomes manifest when there is either famine or flooding due to erratic and seasonal rainfall.

Lack of investment

Water supply systems in Africa can be described as an area where under investment is rife. Though South Africa has one of the cleanest water systems in the world it is ranked as the 30th driest country in the world as well. Currently there is a real threat of a crisis emerging that would affect the country’s 49 million people. This state of affairs has been blamed on lack of adequate investment in the water sector, leakages and theft as well as infrequent rains that have left dam waters at historically low levels.

In Nigeria an estimated $500 million of budgeted funds is annually sunk into the water sector though government claims $2.05 billion is the annual figure needed in investments to attain the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets. However experts insist that the sector’s problems are less about availability of funds and more about mismanagement of resources and poor utilization of available finances.

According to the Water and Environmental Affairs in South Africa, over R570Bn(US$57Bn) will be needed for investment across South Africa’s water value chain, in the coming 10 years. The money would go into water resource infrastructure, services and conservation.

Increasing population

Populations in Africa are exploding coupled with economic development as well as urbanization and this has raised more problems. A look at the Nile Basin shows that pollution and environmental degradation are decreasing water availability for Egypt. Egypt is facing an annual water deficit of around 7 billion cubic metres. Infact, United Nations is already warning that Egypt could run out of water by the year 2025. This is also true for many other countries in Africa


Because of all these factors the available water has become a source of conflict between communities  and even countries. The Nile for instance has seen protagonists issue threats of war should its flow be interrupted by countries further upstream. Running through Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, the Nile’s water has the potential to spark conflict and unrest. In Western Africa the Volta river basin that extends from Guinea through Mali and down to Nigeria is vital for food, water and transportation, this is especially true for Mali which is one of the world’s poorest countries, but the river’s over-usage is contributing to an increasingly polluted and unusable water source.  In southern Africa, the Zambezi river basin is one of the world’s most over-used river systems, and Zambia and Zimbabwe compete fiercely over it. To date countries have resolved their differences but with the sustained demand for water, the situation could degenerate to outright hostility and aggression.

The Nile basin is a good case study of the threat of conflict over water. Egypt controls majority of the water resource extracted from the Nile River due to a colonial-era treaty, which guaranteed Egypt 90 percent share of the Nile, and prevented their neighbors from extracting even a single drop from the Nile without permission. However, countries along the Nile such as Burundi, and Ethiopia have taken advantage of the political strife that had engulfed Egypt and are gaining more control over the rights for the Nile. With the Nile supplying 95 percent of Egypt’s freshwater, losing some of the water supply can cause additional problems for Egypt. In the long-term however, it will be necessary to create a legal order on national and regional level that regulates the fair distribution of water in the region.

Water loses

Africa is a hot continent and water losses from evaporation in dams and water pans is high. In addition old and dilapidated piping systems contribute to the loss of millions of litres of water annually. In South Africa the government has shed the spot light on leakages and water theft in recent years and has set targets to reduce water losses. It is estimated that a third of all water goes to waste due to leakages in aging pipelines that were laid over 80 years ago. In Emfuleni Municipality which is one of three municipalities that comprise the Gauteng region, it was noted that at night when there is less demand for water, pressure build up in the pipes increased leakages and so a pumping station was innovatively set up to reduce the pressure and this has resulted in savings of millions of litres of water which translates to US$ 3million a year.

Water losses due to evaporation are also an issue in Egypt where the country receives less than 80 mm of rainfall a year, and only 6percent of the country is arable and agricultural land, with the rest being desert. This leads to excessive watering and the use of wasteful irrigation techniques such as flood irrigation. Nowadays, Egypt’s irrigation network draws almost entirely from the Aswan High Dam, which regulates more than 18,000 miles of canals and sub-canals that push out into the country’s farmlands adjacent to the river. This system is highly inefficient, losing as much as 3 billion cubic meters of Nile water per year through evaporation and could be detrimental by not only intensifying water and water stress but also creating unemployment. A further decrease in water supply would lead to a decline in arable land available for agriculture, and with agriculture being the biggest employer of youth in Egypt, water scarcity could lead to increased unemployment levels.


Arguably Africa’s greatest nemesis is corruption and the loss of funds earmarked for water supply projects has caused projects to stall or not to take off altogether. In Nigeria for instance, issues revolving poor operation and maintenance, inept institutions, insufficient technical capacity and persistent implementation failure are tied into the fact that the financial management structure in the water and sanitation sector is largely described as opaque while uncoordinated water policies facilitate replication of efforts; weakening intersectoral harmonization as every tier of government pursues its own water agenda. The result is that 70 million Nigerians live without access to safe drinking water while 102 million don’t have access to improved sanitary services.

Ramon Reigada a former Second Secretary to the European Union delegation in Nigeria, once stated that, “It is well known that the public financial management in Nigeria should be improved and the water sector is not an exception to this. So even if the funds are available and the administration and public service willing to spend it, it is not easy to keep running water schemes for a long time if you do not have the proper financial planning capacity.”


In most of Africa the rural areas are characterized by lack of running water or sanitation while in the urban areas most of the population lives in slums and has to rely on water vendors and kiosks where they pay a premium for water compared to the cost of piped water in more affluent parts of the cities. In Kenya for instance it is estimated that over 60% of the population of Nairobi lives in slums. An estimated 24% of residents of informal settlements have access to household toilet facilities, 68% rely on shared facilities and 6% have no access to facilities at all and often resort to ‘flying toilets’ which pose a serious health hazard. Latrine emptying and sludge removal are handled by small scale operators under unsanitary conditions.

The Kenyan Water sector has undergone a series of significant reforms which has established commercially orientated water and sewerage companies with asset owning water services boards.  Most utilities have established informal settlement departments to manage service delivery in low income areas but these units often have limited resources and plans to address the growing challenges in expanding low income areas.

Despite these efforts, developing access to safe water and adequate sanitation services in most if Africa remains painfully slow is wide ranging, complex and complicated by corruption that pervades every sector of the economy.

Investing in improved water supply and sanitation outweighs the costs. Economic benefits range from 3 to 34 US dollars per 1 USD invested in view of what is won in public health, agriculture and industry. Spoken from the perspective of the Millennium Development Goals and also the post-2015 agenda, there are high economic benefits to meeting these goals. Creating a better water infrastructure enhances the life standard of a population and encourages investment which creates jobs — it is a competitive advantage as advanced by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

However, it may take some more time for economic players on all levels to recognise the value of an advanced water infrastructure. The perception process might need help to catch up with reality. It is vital to debate the issue of water management not only in a humanitarian but also in an economic context.