World Water Week shines a spotlight on the African water crisis

This year’s World Water Week (WWW), taking place from August 24 to 28, has been forced to take its sessions online in the face of the ongoing threat posed by COVID-19. Organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) since 1991, the international event has served as an annual spotlight for ongoing problems with access to safe water globally. This year, the urgency of water challenges appear more pressing than ever.

A case in point was South Africa’s Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, who called on citizens to value water while emphasizing how the country is still struggling to provide access to clean water for the entire population – an issue only exacerbated by the COVID-10 pandemic. “The South African government is doing its utmost best to ensure that all its population has water,” Sisulu explained, “[Regardless] this is an opportune time for all of us to start valuing water, not only in a crisis, but even beyond.”

South Africa is approaching “Day Zero”

Indeed, the country has been in a “water crisis” since at least 2017, and has struggled against ageing infrastructure, prolonged droughts and wasteful water use. Multi-year droughts in the Northern and Eastern Cape provinces have already pushed livestock farmers and small towns to the brink, and a 2019 drought saw reservoirs emptied as municipalities failed to enforce water restrictions.

Even scarier are predictions that cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg could run out of water as soon as 2030 if no effective changes are enacted. In the past, citywide water shortages have given rise to almost comical measures, from competitions on who could wash their work shirt the least to restaurants urging patrons not to flush after using the restroom. If future shortages lead to supplies being shut off completely, citizens are unlikely to be as genial. Given that South Africa’s already unpredictable rainfall is set to become only more mercurial in the coming decades, there is little doubt that the country has an urgent need for sufficient storage infrastructure and careful management of existing resources.

COVID-19 as an exacerbating factor

South Africa is far from the only country facing water supply challenges, and the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the “dire need” for water infrastructure projects all over the world. As such, the United Nations (UN) is now pushing for the acceleration of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ahead of 2030 objectives. “COVID has made it even clearer that access to safe water and sanitation is an absolute must,” emphasises Vedika Bhandarkar, the chief global impact officer at the non-profit micro-funding organisation, “but how can you wash your hands if you don’t have access to water?”

In that context, it’s no surprise that bottled water – more often than not the only clean and safe water source – has become the lifeline for many communities, where it’s used for drinking, cooking and washing. But in South Africa as in other countries across the African continent, moves to improve access to groundwater via a stable water infrastructure are gaining momentum. And the EU has turned into one of the most engaged in that regard, having already improved access to safe drinking water across Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The EU’s helping hand

In Malawi, for example, the EU-funded WATERSPOUTT project targets rural areas where water shortages are made worse by poverty, gender factors and government blind spots. By innovating a range of solar-based technologies, communities can utilise Solar Disinfection (SODIS) to treat water in large quantities. Such innovations are crucial for providing a low-cost, year-round means for communities to secure their water supply even in adverse conditions.

Similar projects are underway in Zimbabwe, where recovery projects following the devastation of Cyclone Idai in March 2019 saw international organisations donate hundreds of thousands of dollars toward vital water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) supplies in flood-affected areas. The EU contribution underpinned the distribution of water purification tablets and soap to households and health institutions, the repair of vital water supply networks, and the construction of new water points where needed.

In Zambia, the European Investment Bank (EIB) signed a water and sanitation agreement with Lusaka just last year. Valued at around €5 million, the grant was designated to assist the Mulonga Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) in the implementation of a major water and sanitation initiative in line with MDG targets. “The project is fully consistent with the Zambian Vision 2030 that sets the targets of 100% access to clean water provision by 2030,” Zambian Minister of Finance Margaret Mwanakatwe said of the agreement with the EIB.

Lack of investments threatens progress

Just one year on from the Zambia agreement, however, it is clear that a shortage of investor interest is a core threat faced by these communities. In fact, Africa’s infrastructure gap is estimated to require spending of between $130 billion and $170 billion annually to keep pace with growing demand, while the capacity of multilateral funds and national resources amounts to barely half this amount.

The risk of natural disasters, food crises and the ever-present threat of uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks mean that Africa’s speedy recovery and long-term security will never be achieved without substantial and sustained investment in water and sanitation initiatives. For those with their sights firmly set on a post-pandemic world of resilience and prosperity, the WWW should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers and investors alike.

Image credit: Mbrk A. Madhi via Flickr

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