A New Water Paradigm for Sub-Saharan Africa

To make clean water and sanitation truly accessible to local communities across the continent, African institutions must take the lead in understanding the specific challenges and opportunities they face.

Excavators dredge the River Nile as part of a clean up operation in Cairo as Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan meet for talks over disputed Nile dam, Egypt, December 3, 2019. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

In recent years, African leaders have come together to promote initiatives that can manage, protect, and more equitably distribute the continent’s water resources. In keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015, and particularly SDG6 (which calls for universal access to water services), bodies like the African Development Bank (AFDB) and the African Union (AU) have put forward plans that aim to enhance access to water services for all Africans by investing in dams, irrigation systems, pipelines, and wastewater treatment plants. They include the AFDB’s Africa Water Vision 2025, as well as the Continental Africa Water Investment Programme adopted by the AU in February 2021. These initiatives share a common objective: to support the continent’s economic growth and development.

These African-led strategies complement existing international projects, such as the United States’ Government’s Global Waters Strategy, and Germany’s funding measure, Water as a Global Resource (GroW). For several years, these projects have supported research and capacity-building efforts in Africa that lead to diversified water supply sources, higher standards in water quality, and the adoption of more efficient irrigation technologies, among others. 

Despite such efforts, limited access to water and sanitation services remains a critical impediment to economic and social development across the continent. More than 300 million Africans lack access to clean water services and 700 million lack access to decent sanitation. If greater investments are not made in the coming years to support regional initiatives that tackle these challenges—particularly in the rural communities that host most of the growing populations—the situation will only get worse. Around 5 percent of Africa’s GDP is lost every year due to water scarcity. Key sectors that employ millions, such as agriculture and mining, are severely affected by drought. 

To turn the tide on these issues, efficient domestic institutions in African states are essential. Policy structures articulated around solid and representative institutions would strengthen local support for policies that change how water resources are allocated. For example, while institutional arrangements that promote public-private partnerships (PPPs) have been introduced throughout the continent (in part to help with cost recovery for building water infrastructure in urban centers), they hardly take into consideration the local issues that many communities face. These include high inequality, poor maintenance of existing infrastructures, and growing urban populations. It is important therefore to increase institutional sensitivity to local needs—when setting prices for water services, for example.

The Current Water Paradigm

Africa is not water scarce, per se, if one considers its resources as a whole. The continent has more than sixty-two transboundary rivers which cover 64 percent of its total land area. 

The Nile River, which is the longest on the continent and the second-longest river in the world, links the economic and social futures of eleven riparian countries (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda). Other major river basins include the Congo, Zambezi, Okavango, Limpopo, Volta, Niger, Senegal, Orange, Komati, and Gambia, along with the basins of Lakes Victoria and Chad, which together supply water to millions of Africans. 

However, the difficult economic conditions experienced by most countries make it challenging and expensive for governments to capitalize on those resources and promote inter and intra-basin water transfer arrangements from water-rich to water-scarce regions. Optimal allocation and management of both surface and groundwater sources requires sustained financial investment. Ongoing investment is also needed to enhance the wastewater infrastructure for water recycling, desalination, and greywater treatment. Many wastewater treatment plants are not operating at full capacity and their revitalization requires sustained public and private investment efforts. Even in South Africa, the most industrialized country on the continent, 60 percent of wastewater treatment plants do not meet discharge requirements. The current level of investment in the water sector, which hovers around $9 billion per year, is far below the $23 billion needed to support the continent’s SDG-6 goals (which include all aspects of water and sanitation access). Meanwhile, the African Development Bank estimates that $64 billion is needed annually to meet the 2025 Africa Water Vision of water security for all. 

Additionally, more competition for water between different sectors (agriculture, industry, and residential) raises the price of water, which leaves many communities—often the poorest and most vulnerable—in a situation whereby women and children must walk long distances to collect water to satisfy their basic needs. In countries where true water scarcity is not an issue because there are enough rivers and lakes, difficult economic and social conditions make it hard to use and value the resources at their disposal. This is because the infrastructure and institutions needed to extract, allocate, manage, and treat water are either missing or poorly managed, which leads to a situation of economic water scarcity. Such scarcity is characterized by a state of nature where water is available but not usable due to financial, technological, human capacity, and institutional constraints. Competition over water by several sectors is then exacerbated by both climate change and population growth.

More people will require greater food production, processing, transport, and distribution. This increases the water footprint of the agricultural value chain and makes water use efficiency a prerequisite for sustainable water management. For instance, if the middle class continues to grow as it has been in recent decades, only a system that uses water efficiently will be able to meet rising demand. Projections show that, by 2030, the demand for water in Africa will quadruple, and that most of that increase is driven by population growth and the development of the agricultural, industrial, and commercial sectors. 

At the same time, climate change reduces the frequency of rainfall and leads either to drought or flood, the costs of which have been steep for several African states. Previous episodes of drought, flooding, and changing rainfall patterns and temperatures have drastically increased vulnerability across various African regions. For instance, the 2005-2006 drought in Botswana damaged nearly 73,000 hectares of cultivated cropland, resulting in tremendous economic losses and social suffering. 

An earlier drought in 1991-1992 affected more than 80,000 people, of whom  20,000 faced a serious risk of starvation. In South Africa, more recent estimates show that the agricultural sector shed 31,000 jobs in provinces severely affected by drought and temperature change in 2018 and lost approximately 7 billion rand of turnover due to weather variability. Meanwhile, drought in Zambia in 2017-2018 sent more than 2.3 million people into poverty. 

Taken together, these issues paint a complex picture of the state of water usage in Africa. It comes as no surprise, then, that tensions surrounding its use often run high. One high-profile example, which has escalated to the point of crisis in recent years, is the conflict between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). 

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

According to Ethiopian government officials, the GERD (located on the Blue Nile—a tributary of the Nile River—on Ethiopia’s western border) was built to help address the country’s problems with energy production and socio-economic development. It is expected to help reduce poverty and promote a massive youth employment program. Today, the country relies heavily on biomass energy sources and more than 60 million people lack access to electricity. The hydroelectric power expected from the GERD project should help the country reach its long-term development and structural transformation goals. The GERD is planned to become the largest hydropower project in Africa, and its cost, estimated at $5-6 billion, is financed by government bonds and private donations. Officials from downstream neighboring countries, namely Egypt and Sudan, however, are deeply skeptical of the project.  

More than 90 percent of the freshwater consumed in Egypt comes from the Nile river. According to Egyptian officials, the GERD represents an existential threat, as it could affect not only the amount of water the country has to draw upon, but also the output of the 2.1 GW High Aswan Dam, which provides electricity to many sectors in the country. Egypt’s economy and social stability would also be put at risk if less water becomes available to its farmers and the hydroelectricity sector once flows are controlled from the GERD.

Egypt claims that the dam’s construction does not abide by previous agreements which guaranteed Egypt the right to 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Nile water per year and Sudan 18.5 bcm per year (agreements which were signed, however, without Ethiopia’s participation). Similar concerns are expressed by Sudan regarding the potential impact of the GERD on the efficiency of its 280 MW Roseries Dam. Although Sudan initially supported the GERD project, the change in the country’s political landscape with the military coup of Al-Bashir has modified Sudanese discourse toward the GERD.  

Interventions in January led by former U.S Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin failed to produce an agreement. Meanwhile, concerns expressed by Egypt and Sudan have been exacerbated by Ethiopia’s recent decision to begin a second year of filling the GERD reservoir in July and August 2021. President Biden’s administration said in February that it would review policy on the GERD and look to renew U.S. efforts to mediate the long-running dispute. 

As of this writing, the countries are set to bring their negotiations before the UN Security Council. However, the council has expressed doubts that there is much it can do other than encourage the parties to keep negotiating. In truth, there are now monitoring technologies available that could address many of the problems raised by the riparian states (such as the management of flow during droughts). According to the UN’s Under Secretary General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, the remaining issues should be surmountable

This case study shows that in Africa, as anywhere else in the world, water issues cannot be addressed in isolation. Water is linked to many other natural resources, such as energy, land, forestry, and mining, which all affect human livelihoods and support economic development, peace and security. This means that any action taken in the water sector will subsequently affect other non-water sectors and produce some positive or negative external effects. 

These effects can be direct and indirect, short-term or even long-term. Even absent the kind of international implications seen in the GERD case, the decision to build new dams will affect the energy sector, and help regulate the volume of water needed for irrigation purposes and other water-dependent productive sectors. Nonetheless, it may negatively affect the livelihoods of local populations and the ecosystem. Thus, investment options that aim at addressing water scarcity and water planning and management must take into consideration these external effects. 

A More Comprehensive, Inclusive, and Transparent Water Agenda

To cope with this complexity, policymakers must hone in on the specificities of each situation as they address it, bearing in mind the spatial and socio-economic differences between Africa’s regions. What works in West Africa might not necessarily work in East or Southern Africa. The institutional features, governance structures and geopolitical situations of each region should be taken into consideration when drafting water policies. 

One way to do this and address a number of problems at once is to seek local participation and buy-in from the populations affected by water problems and policies. For example, one set of problems associated with water scarcity is the nexus between water, health, and poverty. Poor people tend to consume less water because they live in remote, often rural areas. Bringing piped water to these communities is often costly because of the low density of the population, which in turn tends to affect water prices and infrastructure planning. Poor cost recovery makes it even harder to expand the water service coverage to remote areas. 

As a result, most rural dwellers end up exclusively using untreated underground water sources. This exposes those resources to depletion because little control is applied to usage and no one knows exactly how the extracted underground water is being utilized (so it is hard to regulate). The little amount of piped water available to rural dwellers is often also not of good quality. This exposes rural populations to water-borne diseases and higher mortality rates. The most affected are often children and women since they are, unfortunately, the most vulnerable. This is because, in rural areas, women have limited economic opportunities, given their low level of education and income, which in turn affects their children’s livelihoods. 

One way to address this is by promoting inclusive and decentralized water management approaches, which involve the local communities and several stakeholders in the planning and design of water policies. The resulting implications of such a comprehensive and inclusive water management approach allow policy-makers to establish trust and spur ownership of policies within the communities they serve. This helps build transparency in how public policies are implemented and supports initiatives that aim at strengthening local expertise. 

Such an approach creates communities that know how to maintain their own water infrastructures. This bottom-up management approach not only ensures better resource management and planning (because the people who know their own needs best are involved), but also helps mitigate any potential tensions associated with water allocation that might emerge between communities. Finally, it promotes a holistic view and concerted effort across sectors and institutions.

A Way Forward 

Despite all of the challenges highlighted above, the African continent has most of what is needed to plan and manage its waters efficiently and cost-effectively. However, it requires a paradigm shift wherein water policies are designed inclusively and transparently, involving various stakeholders operating in the water allocation chain.

The shared vision of creating an Africa where there is an equitable and sustainable use and management of water resources, socio-economic development, and regional cooperation—as highlighted in the Africa Water Vision for 2025—can only be truly realized if new methods are implemented by regional and continental organizations. This requires, however, regional collaborations in the water sector where national agendas are supplemented by regional ones, given the transboundary nature of this resource. More financial support could be given to institutions such as the Southern and the Western Africa Technical Advisory Teams, to enable them to develop regional water management visions. This is exactly what the Africa Water Vision is about: leveraging Africa’s internal expertise to promote sustainable water resources management. 

The objective of such African-led water management initiatives is the creation of a water governance system that is holistic, representative of  African realities, and takes into consideration the constraints and opportunities present on the ground. The integrated water resources management approachoften advocated by international institutionsshould be reinvigorated to avoid a one-size-fits-all policy agenda that is imported and implemented without taking into consideration the domestic socio-economic, environmental and institutional context.  

For instance, more emphasis should be given to policies that promote demand-side management (DSM) and diversification of the water supply and that are gender-sensitive and more oriented toward rural and peri-urban centers where most of the African population lives. Investment  in new irrigation technologies and adjustment of water taxes are good examples of such DSM, especially given the rising challenges of climate change and population growth. 

From the supply side, widespread dissemination of low-cost and easy-to-maintain technologies can help to optimize the use of groundwater and promote recycling of wastewater for non-drinking purposes. With such an approach, we can expect Africa to leave behind inefficiency, and achieve a true paradigm shift in the way water resources are managed on the continent.

Djiby Thiam is associate professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He has published numerous journal articles on resources and development issues in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and coordinated several international projects in the same region. On Twitter: @DjibyRThiam

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