In 2005, WORD Magazine produced three feature stories written by journalist Saada Branker about Africa’s Water Crises and the multi-faceted problems created by access to and shortages of clean water.

The stories explore a variety of African settings and the issues Africans are constantly challenged to contend with as it relates to water shortages. The stories highlighted the role played by CIDA and various Canadian NGOs and engineering companies in attempts to alleviate shortages of safe drinking water, and water needed for agricultural purposes. Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Egypt are just some of the countries affected and discussed in the series.

Our first of three stories provided an overview of the scope of the water crises that various countries in Africa must contend with. It demonstrated that the nature of the problem ranging from having adequate water for agricultural use; accessing clean, safe water for drinking, to showing how water can be a source of tension between competing groups and countries. It also showed the link between the lack of clean, safe water and food scarcity in countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia.

The latter country is reported have an estimated 12 million people facing water shortages due to drought especially in the northern areas such as Tigray province. It pointed out that it is not unusual, for example, for many people in rural Ethiopia to spend half a day in search for clean water. This story highlighted CIDA’s role in strengthening and harvesting and irrigation development in Tigray in a multi-year, multi-million dollar initiative. The project called WHIST (Water harvesting and Institutional Strengthening Tigray has as its goal, access to safe water which we all hope will in turn leads to self-sufficiency in food production. This is crucial if we are to avoid another devastating famine as we all saw in Ethiopia previously. [Editors Note: Thirty years after the massive famine in the 80s galvanized the world community to do something about this disaster, the United Nations is warning that 15 million Ethiopians will need food aid by 2016.]

The second story of our series on Africa’s Water Crises explores how it affects women disproportionately. Gender roles in many African countries developed over centuries mean that women are faced with the responsibility of the family’s nutrition and hygiene as well as replenishing water. This also impacts on girls who are required to assist their mothers.

Such roles affect women and girls not just in the household but also outside. This can be seen in terms of education and overall productivity of the communities and the societies from which these women belong. One solution to this problem is gender mainstreaming. In other words, women have got to be part of the decision-making process. CIDA’s efforts at supporting women in taking on a more equal role through its work with such Canadian NGOs such as WaterCan was also highlighted.

Our third story profiled some of the more successful long-term water projects in Africa against a backdrop of the water crises facing the many countries on the continent. This story demonstrated how a complex project such as the Nile Basin Region Integration Water Supply with the help of CIDA and other Canadian NGOs, can succeed with having a more holistic approach. This means integrating several important issues in the overall plan including irrigation, gender roles and the issue of private versus public ownership of water.


Time is running out on the phone card faster than expected. Connection activated, Fred Owera Odum’s voice comes clear from a far away place landlocked on the eastern side of the African continent. He speaks calmly. His voice never sounding anxious, even though all kinds of press releases have been flying into circuit, directing the world to the impending state of emergency in his country, Uganda.

Northern regions in the country are threatened by the encroaching violence between battling gunmen. It’s been 17 years and counting since the government of Uganda’s army took up arms against the opposing rebel militia known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Almost two decades of people caught up in the fighting, fleeing their homes; so long now officials have coined them internally displaced people (IDPs). So long that children are born into IDP camps, never knowing what it is like to run freely on their property and into their own houses. There are no real houses in these camps of tightly packed tukuls – huts with thatched roofs. And when Odum confirms there is a scarcity of clean drinking water, it’s apparent time is running out for the people who have come to the aid of the displaced.

It is this critical situation that Odum talks about. “There are three major needs in the camps,” says Odum, a program manager for the Toronto-based Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR). He lists them. “Shelter. Safe drinking water – that’s is the biggest challenge – and proper sanitation. The water is not enough for the people in the camps.”

Water management has indeed proven to be an urgent challenge for the camps in these rural regions of the country. Relief workers cite 300,000 people were living in about nine camps in the town of Lira, 380km north of the capital Kampala. Another 200,000 set up in more than 10 camps in rural areas north and east of Lira. And with the rainy season soon to arrive, the rampant spread of disease is a serious threat within their close quarters.

“It’s really frustrating,” says Odum. He speaks from Apac, a region about a three-hour car drive north of Kampala. “It feels bad. People know you’re there to help and they come to you.” The IDP situation forced the CPAR staff to shift from assisting with development to providing emergency aid. But the poor living conditions within a war-ravaged region littered with landmines, means the aid workers work with limited resources. Odum acknowledges this harsh reality and admits he hates not helping his people. “It’s actually embarrassing and frustrating,” he says.

Odum explains there are two types of wells: shallow and deep. “The problem with the shallow wells is they get contaminated,” he says. “In places where there is water deep underground, we drill about 60 meters deep to get to it. The cost is about $8,000US for one well.” Not a lot of money really. But political wrangling and rebels on a rampage forced relief workers to focus more on the day-to-day emergencies. So funding is essential.

Making matters far worse, in March the Ugandan government announced plans to merge some of the existing camps in Lira. It’s a plan to minimize their risk of IDP camps being attacked by rebels, said the government.

Aid workers say the plan is a blueprint for a humanitarian disaster. They warn combining the Ugandan camps will make it near impossible to administer health services and safe sanitation.

Managing water management

Africa has seen her share of humanitarian disasters. Over the years, rampant outbreaks of illnesses such as diarrhea and cholera in many of it countries have been attributed to unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation.

Also too common is malaria, a deadly disease that develops when people are bitten by mosquitoes infected with a parasite. Any Canadian familiar with the much-feared West Nile virus knows mosquito populations can be reduced when people eliminate standing water. But Canadians learn through government sponsored public service announcements and a plethora of pamphlets tucked into their mailboxes at home. In refugee camps likes those in Uganda, mosquitoes thrive because of poor drainage and uncovered water tanks. In a camp where tukuls are lined by the hundreds, there are no mailboxes. There are no information brochures.

And while proper water management is a tricky challenge in any country, Uganda’s dire water crisis seems a step back compared to the forward thinking of participants from the Johannesburg Earth Summit of 2002. There, came the agreement to reduce, by half, the number of people in the world without safe access to clean water and basic sanitation by the year 2015. It’s quite a goal. The United Nations reports that over a billion people in developing countries lack sufficient access to water, and 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation.

Tapping the right source

Water is one of the earth’s most common substances, but 97% of it is simply not for human consumption. Of the 3% fresh water, two-thirds is frozen up in glaciers or snow around the North Pole, leaving about 1% available for human use.

Access is the key word. The problem is not water scarcity says Tony Rogge. He’s the program support manager at CPAR. It’s Rogge’s job to update the organization’s executive director on what’s going on in their country programs. He also provides staff with back-up and support whenever they require it.  Rogge explains this entails a lot of program development topped with writing proposals, mobilizing resources, responding to requests for proposals, communicating with donors and other stakeholders, “tons of report writing” and a fair amount of administration.

“First of all, in many of the places we work, the water itself isn’t scarce, that’s a myth.  There’s lots of it.  It’s just hard to get at,” he explains from CPAR’s head office in Toronto. Accessing safe, clean water is a technical and institutional challenge that requires money, coordination, good policy and the participation of the communities themselves,” says Rogge.

Water is one of the earth’s most common substances, but 97% of it is simply not for human consumption. Of the 3% fresh water, two-thirds is frozen up in glaciers or snow around the North Pole, leaving about 1% available for human use.

That 1% should be enough for everyone, say many observers. There is a natural water cycle. Meaning, rainwater flows through rivers to the salt-laden sea and evaporates as fresh water back into clouds. This process ensures water is infinitely renewable.

“Yes, there are droughts and yes there are times when water tables recede and scarcity becomes a very real issue, but for the most part, in the places we work in Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania, water isn’t scarce, it’s just not available,” says Rogge. “People need help getting to it.”

Within Uganda’s borders, for example, there is Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa. Also, there is half of Lake Albert and the whole of the smaller Lake Kioga. These lakes form part of the source region of the White Nile River. It’s as Rogge says. Water is there, but people need require access. “It’s all about institutions, innovation and cooperation,” says Rogge.

Enter non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like CPAR, WaterCan and Save the Children Canada. These NGOs employ aid workers in countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. It’s these workers who ensure the lofty confines of United Nations conference rooms are exposed to ground zero reports. At least in theory that’s the plan. And the best-laid plans are what attract the eye of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Through its divisions and multilateral projects, Canada has contributed financial assistance to drilling projects in the IDP camps of Uganda, as well as to water harvesting projects in Tanzania and Ethiopia.

CPAR recently completed a emergency health project in northern Uganda for the CIDA. The agency’s Humanitarian Assistance Division provided some financial backing for the rehabilitation of six-deep wells, the construction of two new deep wells, and 10 new protected shallow wells in camps within Lira.  The construction of 30 ventilated pit latrines and 70 hand-washing facilities are examples of Canada’s long-standing commitment helping Africans gain access to safe water.

Harnessing water for self-sufficiency

Toronto journalist Mike Milne saw that commitment up close in Tigray, Ethiopia two years ago. His account of time spent in Ethiopia was the topic of his feature, published in the November 2003 issue of a United Church magazine called The Observer.

“The people who are hungry – chronically short of food or starving from time to time due to drought that makes crop production problematic – are mainly rural,” says Milne. “They are small farmers who live by growing crops for subsistence and for market.”

The situation in Ethiopia differs entirely from that in Uganda. Still, both countries are working towards a self-sustained water management system. Ethiopia is a mountainous country in East Africa. It’s bordered by Sudan on the west, Kenya on the south, Somalia and Djibouti on the east, and Eritrea in the north. Canadians might remember the Ethiopian famines triggered by civil unrest and drought in the 80’s. The effects were devastating to the country’s population. The sight of people dying, their bloated stomachs hanging over emaciated legs, prompted worldwide aid and relief.

More than 12 million people in Ethiopia still face water shortages because of droughts. Hit hardest are rural areas like the northern province of Tigray. But unlike the IDP crisis in Uganda, Ethiopia’s government anticipated an impending disaster a year in advance. It stored about 1.5 million tones of food to avoid a repeating a catastrophe that wiped out over a million people 20 years ago. [Editors note: The United Nations is warning that 15 million Ethiopians will need food aid by 2016.]

But the lack of safe water leads to food scarcity. This problem is exacerbated by poor land use practices such as animal overgrazing and deforestation. This rapid loss of productive farmland is obvious by the extensive amount of soil erosion and land degradation, forcing people to set out far and wide for water sources.

“It’s not unusual for rural Ethiopians to have to spend up to half of a day in search of household and drinking water, often at a distant water-hole or river or lake,” says Milne. “Usually, the water is of questionable quality. That would mean that one person (women and children usually) in the household would have to walk and/or drive a donkey to the water hole, get water and return. I’ve seen some of those rivers and water-holes — scary-looking water — and also seen new wells with people lined up for water.”

The Ethiopian government has lined up resource workers for its water management projects like water harvesting. Harvesting is about harnessing rainwater in man-made ponds and special tanks. Here, Canada has offered a helping hand to the tune of $15million CDN.

Canada and Ethiopia’s partnership

After visiting Ethiopia on a fact-finding mission in 1996, CIDA contracted the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Agency (PFRA) a division of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) to deliver the 6-year, $7.5 million CDN project. The aim was to help strengthen water harvesting and irrigation development in Tigray.

The project, called WHIST (Water Harvesting and Institutional Strengthening Tigray) was ultimately geared to help people of Tigray secure food long term. Increasing their access to safe water is a crucial step toward self-sufficiency in food production. Canada especially understands this determination.

The PFRA has its roots in the Great Depression. The agency was created in the 1930s by the Canadian government during a time of widespread drought and catastrophic soil erosion. Farmland, in turn, was abandoned in the southern Prairies of Western Canada. The experience has garnered a knowledge the government wants to share with Ethiopia through WHIST. The PFRA collaborated with two of Tigray’s provincial agencies. To date, Canada helped in training their staff in management. Also, technicians mentored Ethiopian workers in engineering disciplines like hydrology, hydrogeology, geology, and hydraulic and structural design, to name a few.

There is still work to be done in Ethiopia. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ethiopia delivered an ominous warning about the country’s “ambitious” water harvesting scheme. The government made widespread water harvesting a national development goal for its country’s farmers last year. It was an initiative Milne described in his feature. But the UN offered its own sober second thought in a report released late last year.

The OCHA report emphasized the need to slow down the programme and improve monitoring to learn from mistakes. It’s a solid word of advice governments in Uganda and Ethiopia. CPAR’s Rogge seems mindful that mistakes are imminent, but hints relief organizations work better if they adapt as best as possible in dire circumstances.

“In each country, the policies that shape our approach are different and the capacities of local government and the communities you work with are different,” says Rogge. “This means that your own approach has to be a fluid one. You do your best to promote minimum standards without being too rigid. You do your best to make sure that waterpoints are going to be distributed in an equitable way…not selectively.”

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

In the next feature: The relationship between water, sanitation and gender equality in African countries. Is the developed world imposing its beliefs or are traditions shifting in crisis situations?