Climate change

Water Crisis in Africa Cities

Cities and towns in several other African nations including Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast have been plagued by similar water shortages in recent months, manifestations of a global supply squeeze brought on by drought, population growth, urbanization and insufficient investment in dams and other infrastructure. One of every three people in Africa is affected by water scarcity the circumstance in which a region’s available water supply isn’t enough to meet demand.

africa drought
A woman collects water from one of the few communal water taps available to the thousands of people living in the Zandspruit informal settlement in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images

Water shortages can raise people’s risk of getting sick, since when water is in short supply, households often hoard the precious resource indoors, creating a breeding ground for disease carrying mosquitoes.

Water is also needed to run toilets and basic sanitation facilities. In its absence, residents are often forced to defecate in rivers, a practice that contaminates fresh water with bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Contaminated water also puts residents at increased risk of diseases like cholera and typhoid fever, which can cause dehydration and malnutrition.

Wateruse has risen about 1 percent a year since the 1980s and more than 2 billion people now live in countries experiencing high water stress, the United Nations said in its World Water Development Report that it projects demand will grow as much as 30 percent by 2050.

Financing Gap

The scourge is set to become exponentially worse in Africa the UN expects the population of the world’s poorest continent to almost double to 2.5 billion by 2050, and that 59 percent will reside in urban areas by then, up from 43 percent now. A massive increase in agricultural production will be required to feed everyone, compounding the pressures caused by surging household demand for water.

Even nations with plentiful water resources may be unable to build sufficient dams, pipelines, pumping stations and purification plants to ensure adequate supply.

A study published by the African Development Bank last year found the continent needs to spend at least $130 billion to address an infrastructure backlog, including as much as $66 billion on providing universal access to water and sanitation, but faces a financing gap of $68 billion to $108 billion.

Large up-front investments, short-term political considerations and government-borrowing constraints impede infrastructure construction, with the problem particularly acute in Africa, according to the Global Infrastructure Hub, which was set up by the Group of 20 developed nations to promote development. The benefits the projects deliver to society at large may also outstrip the returns operators earn on them, a likely deterrent to private investment, it said.

The Bitter experience

Crumbling infrastructure has compounded the effect of a crippling drought in cash strapped Zimbabwe, resulting in water rationing in its two largest cities, Harare and Bulawayo. In Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, supply has been cut off on alternating days since January after dam levels fell to less than a quarter of their capacity.

Taps in Cape Town, South Africa’s tourist mecca, came close to running dry last year before good winter rains brought respite from the region’s worst drought on record. The nightmare of running out of water became a reality last year in Bouake, Ivory Coast’s second-largest city, when rains failed. The government was forced to use tankers to truck in emergency supplies, while thousands of people temporarily relocated.

Cape Town’s water crisis got so bad last year that there were competitions to see who could wash their shirts the least. Restaurants and businesses were encouraging people not to flush after going to the toilet. The city was just 90 days away from turning off the taps.

A year on, the South African city’s parched dams are now over 80% full. Water use restrictions have been relaxed. And Day Zero the point at which Cape Town’s municipal water supply would be shut off never came to pass.

Having been threatened by one of the worst-ever drought induced municipal water crises, residents became water-wise.

Image: WWF

Another problem that Durban in particular faces is stolen water. According to one report 35 percent of the cities water is stolen or given out through illegal connections.

Also, preventative measures that were put in place such as the construction of dams in the area have not even started or are still in the process of being built and those structures that are in place now are slowly collapsing. Those in rural areas still lack access to water. One report stated that in 2008 about 5 million people lack access to water and 15 million lack access to basic sanitation. This number has improved greatly since the end of apartheid in 1994, however these numbers are still too high and not one person should ever lack access to the most basic necessity of life, which is water.

Interestingly enough South Africa boast one of the most clean water systems in the world, however due to the lack of sanitation and access in the country’s rural communities the threat of water borne disease is steadily increasing. The Vaal River, the largest river in South Africa and popular tourist destination is becoming increasingly contaminated with fecal material due to the lack of sanitation supplies. It is so bad that the local water agency Rand Water issued a statement that contact with the river may lead to serious infection. Wildlife is also being affected from the raw sewage run off. A court-ordered mandate was issued to remove 20 tons of dead fish from the river after a local NGO SAVE (Save the Vaal River Environment) took the Emfuelni munincipilty to court for leaking raw sewage into the river. They blamed the reason for dumping sewage in the river on old pipes.

Overall, infrastructure is lacking, whether or not it is old pipes or ignorance the South Africa water crisis is here and affecting millions. There has been a backlog in services since the end of apartheid and that needs to change. The national and local governments of South Africa need to do a better job of offering services to their people. Supplies need to be given to those most in need. By taking care of the rural population the government will be helping the cities, because it is these rural communities where the damage to the water supply is beginning due to lack of access to sanitation supplies and clean water education.

A city united

In a dry climate, with rapid urbanization and relatively high per capita water consumption, Cape Town had all the makings of a water crisis. In 2018, after three years of poor rainfall, the city announced drastic action was needed to avoid running out.

Reducing demand was a key priority. The City of Cape Town worked to get residents and businesses on board with a host of water-saving initiatives. People were instructed to shower for no longer than two minutes. A campaign with the slogan “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” promoted flushing the toilet only when necessary. And the use of recycled water – so-called greywater – was also pushed.

At the most extreme, residents were restricted to a maximum of 50 litres a day – not easy when showers alone can use up to 15 litres a minute.Backed up with data on each household’s water use, people pulled together, sharing tips on social media.

Water shortages in Accra, which mostly gets regular rainfall, are mainly attributed to its inadequate and poorly maintained pipes, pumping stations and purification plants. About 4.9 million people live in the city and its surrounds, including the port city of Tema.

Bloomberg report: Two-Year Outage

Joyce Ayitey, 42, who sells plastic cups, tissues and sweets from a wooden stall in front of the home she shares with her husband and three daughters in Diabolo in the eastern part of city, has experienced the extremity of the problem. When her taps ran dry more than two years ago, the water utility company blamed road builders who destroyed its main pipelines and said the outage would be addressed within weeks, but nothing was done.

“We don’t have the money to buy bulk water from tankers so we walk almost every day to buy water and carry it on our heads for use,” she said. “The water fetching is so tiring. We always wish for rain so we can harvest every drop for storage. It gives us such huge respite.’’

Ghana Water Co., the state-owned utility, is aware that some Accra neighborhoods have erratic water supply or are struggling with low pressure, but faces an uphill battle to tackle the problems because new neighborhoods are being developed faster than it can provide the infrastructure, spokesman Stanley Martey said by phone.

Kabuki, the storekeeper, can no longer stomach being unable to flush her toilets when her stockpiled water runs out and has run out of patience with the authorities.

“You want to know how frustrating it is?” she asked. “It is very unpleasant and dehumanizing for me as a woman. I am actually planning to relocate to a house with a guaranteed water supply.”

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