As a limited resource, fresh water makes up only about 4% of the total water resources that exist on Earth¹. In the developed world, we have been blessed and have enjoyed clean and relatively abundant water resources for many years, and therefore we don’t tend to give water scarcity much thought. However, in the developing world, such as on the African Continent, the lack of clean fresh water is a very real issue for many.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the home to hundreds of millions of people who suffer from water scarcity issues². The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that more than 40% of the global water-stressed population lives in Sub-Saharan Africa³. In this region, only an estimated 44% of the urban population and 24% of the rural population have adequate sanitation⁴.
Women and children in Africa walk for miles to obtain water from streams and ponds that often contain disease-causing organisms, such as those that cause cholera, typhoid fever, and infant diarrhea. It has been estimated that nearly 50% of all Africans have water-borne related diseases, and that 20% of childhood deaths worldwide are a result of water-related diseases³,⁵.
Lack of access to clean water is one of the biggest causes of poverty in Africa⁶. Without adequate clean fresh water, people cannot grow food, stay healthy, go to school where they live because their schools lack sufficient clean water and sanitation, and they cannot work because they have to spend many hours each day fetching water.
Causes of water scarcity in Africa
Water is unevenly distributed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. About 75% of the region’s water resources are comprised primarily of eight major river basins³. Climatic and environmental changes have decreased these water resources even more. Due to industrial and agricultural water pollution, insufficient sanitation and supply, and infrastructure issues, only a fraction of fresh water is available for human consumption.
Climatic changes and deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa have led to increased desertification. With less rainfall than in the past, it has become difficult for local populations in some of these areas to continue their traditional livestock grazing and farming, and some people have even turned to cutting down and burning the remaining trees to create charcoal to sell as fuel to make a living⁷,⁸. Because Africa’s people and economies are so dependent upon rain for agriculture, its people are much more vulnerable to extreme climatic conditions and drought⁷.
Economic growth in Africa has been fueled by the exploitation of natural resources, and this had led to water pollution and an increased demand for water resources³. The dumping of industrial waste into water ways, unregulated agrochemicals, and oil spills have been common, and have led to the pollution of inland water resources that will likely last for generations.
Then there is the current trend of land sales occurring in Africa, where foreign interests purchase rights to inland water resources³. These purchased lands are often used for water-heavy agriculture and involve deforestation, which lead to the disruption of local water cycles, decreasing water supplies even further⁹.
Problems of water scarcity are made even worse in higher population areas, such as areas that are undergoing rapid urbanization. As population grows in urban areas and water demand increases in these already water-stressed areas, conflict becomes likely. Such increased demand for limited resources exacerbates existing interstate tensions, even to the point of armed conflict. In fact, Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 17 major river basins shared by 35 countries, that will all want to have a stake in existing water resources³.
Current efforts underway to address water scarcity issues in Africa
Water investment is critical to help bring Africa’s people out of poverty. The World Health Organization reports that every $1 investment made into clean water efforts leads to $3-4 dollars generated in regional economies³. Ensuring that the people of Africa have clean water helps to ensure that they will stay healthy, enable them to grow food, attend school, work, and helps to maintain peaceful communities.
Non-profit organizations such as The Water Project are helping communities to obtain clean water through training, financial support, and advisement on the construction of water projects. They assist communities in creating wells, rain collection, maintaining sanitary practices, water filtration, sub-surface dam construction, and protecting natural water sources like springs.
There is a need for the involvement of local authorities, national governments, and international investors to work together to protect water resources as land development occurs, and that the water resources and land rights of indigenous peoples’ are respected and protected¹⁰. National governments that share water resources need to come to collaborative agreements regarding how they will peacefully meet their nations’ needs for water together.
Permaculture and other sustainable farming techniques are now being applied in various places in Africa that will help to greatly reduce the water demand for water use and other inputs in agriculture¹¹,¹². As these techniques gain greater acceptance, more farmers will be able to grow crops in Africa despite reduced rainfall.
The issue of water scarcity in Africa is one that we all can learn from. As climate change is predicted to increase drought conditions throughout more areas of the planet, all of humanity will be challenged to change our relationship with water from one that we take for granted to one of respect, conservation, and protection¹³. The current ongoing drought in the State of California of the United States is one of many examples of how water is becoming more precious on a global scale¹⁴.
We can also donate money to those organizations such as The Water Project that are working to make sustainable water a reality for many.
As we look to meet the current challenges of water security in Africa and find sustainable water use solutions everywhere, humanity will need to increasingly consider the impact of our activities on our global water resources, which we all must share.