Editor’s note: Journalist Saada Branker takes a look at some of the solutions being used to address Africa’s Water Crises in the third and final installment of this series, first published in WORD Magazine in 2005.

Few things are more critical than a shortage of water. With its status of precious resource, water makes itself a priority in any situation. It’s no wonder alarm bells are sounding around the world. More countries are expressing anxiety over the supply of water within their borders. Seems we humans — the environment’s more destructive inhabitants — influence global water levels more than everyone anticipated. Everyone, that is, except the scientists. And when it comes to Africa, the driest continent on the earth, anticipate more anxiety from more scientists as they go on record with their warnings.

It was about two years ago when a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report indicated “water wars” could break out in African countries sharing rivers and lakes; the likely sore spots were the Nile, Volta and Zembezi basins. Right there, that news was a bad sign. Anyone wondering why only had to reflect on water use and its gross misuse in countries throughout the globe. Word is, the world faces a water crisis that will continue to grow, if nothing is done to accurately assess it and effectively handle it. That’s a paraphrase of what another UN report from the World Water Assessment Programme predicted in March 2003. For years, warnings about water have been flying fast and furious from UN agencies investigating the scale of the developing problem.

States of emergency

We only need look at what’s not developing in Sudan for an example of a dire predicament. More than a million Black Africans have been forced to leave their homes in Darfur, Sudan. The death toll in the East African country has surpassed 50,000 since a civil war erupted last year between a militia, allegedly backed by the government, and rebel groups. World leaders are buzzing about accusations of Sudan-endorsed acts of genocide, juxtaposed to the UN’s inaction. As the global intervention wheel finally gets turning, the process has been called, at the very least, shortsighted and toothless on such things as enforcement. Meanwhile, there is another important movement; that of the Sudanese people. In droves, they continue to arrive at refugee camps in need of water, their very presence driving the demand for the natural resource higher still.


The growing disaster in Sudan is sibling to what has already developed in Uganda, a country that also relies on the world’s largest river system, the Nile. The water situation in north Uganda was the topic of press releases directed to international wire services earlier this year. So much, world leaders had little choice but to contemplate a response to the devastation that leveled the northern regions of the country. Gripped by civil war in its 18th year and counting, more rural areas in Uganda were flooded with refugee camps housing thousands upon thousands of people. Money for water and sanitation projects was badly needed.

The country director for Canadian Physicians for Aid Relief Uganda (CPAR) talked about those projects last March in a telephone interview with WORD. Gizaw Shibru confirmed the violent fighting threatened any development work carried out in regions such as Lira and Apac. With gun-wielding rebels and landmines to consider, CPAR found itself shifting gears and focusing on emergency aid for refugees. But because of limited access to clean water, every development initiative had a shelf life.


By 2025, African countries reeling from water stress or water scarcity will increase from 13 to 25.


The world’s observers just need to step back and see water dilemmas springing up in more regions of the continent. According to the UNDP, population growth and economic development will result in a disturbing prospect for Africa. Within 25 years, nearly one in two of its citizens will live in a country facing a scarcity of water. The report says by 2025, African countries reeling from water stress or water scarcity will increase from 13 to 25. The definition of water stress is less than 1,500 cubic metres of water available for each person per year, while water scarcity means less than 1,000 cubic metres available for each person per year. Water stress expanding throughout Africa is news no one wants to hear. Clean water helps people stay healthy and productive in a thriving society; the emphasis, of course, resting on productivity — the symbiotic partner of development.

Developing market values

Try talking about the cost of supplying that clean water and activists will go parch insisting access to water is a basic human right. They’re right. No one disputes this fundamental truth in a global community. What is hotly debated is the cost for water’s delivery. Who should pay for ensuring the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of 2000 are met? Because reducing by half the proportion of people without safe access to water and sanitation by 2015 will be no easy feat. It may not even be possible without worldwide cooperation. Another important consideration is how much money are we really talking about when more than 1.5 billion people in the world lack access to drinking water and another 2.5 billion are living without sanitation?

The problem is not scarcity as much as it’s governance. What is required is an additional $30 billion to $40 billion invested annually in water development to achieve the MDG goals. That’s in addition to the current $80 billion.


Science and Theology News reported water experts dove into the numbers at a conference, “Water for Life and Security” this summer in Barcelona. The problem is not scarcity as much as it’s governance they said. What is required is an additional $30 billion to $40 billion invested annually in water development to achieve the MDG goals. That’s in addition to the current $80 billion.

“It sounds big, but not when you think that it’s only two percent of global annual military spending,” one UN official of natural sciences was quoted as saying. The economic benefits could generate a gain far greater than what’s invested, said the official.

Economic returns are fine and good, but putting a price on water in developing African countries? The actual concept is not that deep, water experts say. Water is like a fuel for development. Deliver more clean water to the 800 million Africans who need it and note all the subsequent improvements. What’s more murky is determining the economic principles that should be applied in supplying and managing that water. Basically, a market powered by supply and demand. WaterCan, which helps fund water development projects in Africa, has its opinion on the economics of water.

<blockquote>“User fees are necessary to cover the cost of system operations and maintenance, (to) recognize the value of water, and to encourage water conservation. The hard question of course is how much do you charge and how do you do it?”</blockquote>

“WaterCan’s position is that domestic water supplies — both in the urban and rural context — should cost users something,” says George Yap, only hours before departing on a three-week trip to four east African countries. There, he’ll assess the projects funded by non-governmental organizations in Africa (NGOs), which in turn are supported financially by WaterCan, an Ottawa-based NGO. WaterCan received the go-ahead in March of 2003 from CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, for an extensive three-year water project in the Nile Basin.  “User fees are necessary to cover the cost of system operations and maintenance, (to) recognize the value of water, and to encourage water conservation. The hard question of course is how much do you charge and how do you do it?” says this program director for WaterCan. Corporations and cooperation Gerard Mestrallet of Suez, the world’s largest water company, has a convenient slogan: “God provided the water but not the pipes.” Clearly, water needs to be managed. Its system needs to be maintained, from well-trained water engineers down to repair teams for leaky pipes. Even better if the whole thing was integrated, so that several countries sharing a transboundary water source cooperate for everyone’s benefit. History shows us water disputes between nations occur more often than not. Tensions sparked, for example, in the case of Ethiopia’s previous government and its dealings with Egypt. Officials in both countries butted heads when Addis Ababa threatened to build a dam on the Nile. Such harnessing would affect water supply in Sudan and the more industrialized Egypt, both down river of Ethiopia. The head of Worldwatch, an environmental research institute once said, with Ethiopia having only one-tenth of Egypt’s income the latter “would not take too kindly” to losing in a conflict with its Nile Basin neighbour.


In this particular case, both sides monitored the other’s use of the Blue Nile intently, each alleging violations. Water being a natural resource makes claiming ownership a tricky thing. What is easy to grasp, however, is Egypt’s advantage over Ethiopia. Sitting downriver means it receives the water flushed with more nutrients and minerals, away from mountainous terrain that characterizes drought-prone Ethiopia. This advantage feeds industry in Egypt and keeps its Gross Domestic Product sufficiently higher than Ethiopia’s. Building an infrastructure as complex and costly as a dam is not within the poorer Ethiopia’s capabilities right now. But that reality doesn’t stop the country from trying.

Business of urbanization

In the meantime, urban encroachment is gaining international attention. The discussions for multinationals like Suez, and smaller private water companies to provide water in Africa relate to urban and peri-urban areas. Meaning cities and small towns, but not rural areas, says Yap. That’s because the urban population in many African countries is expected to grow at a tremendous rate, he says, as seen by the informal settlements — also known as slums — taking root in cities. And growth is what lures the profit-seekers. Call it opening up to enterprise or opening up to imperialists, but the water experts will tell you there’s opportunity to help people in need on a long-term basis, pushing them towards self-sustainable development. Profit motive is what make advocates for the poor nervous.

Privatization has been followed by large increases in costs of water and only limited improvement in services. Only urban centre water supply systems have been candidates for privatization. Rural areas, where the majority live, have been left out.

The program director for Save The Children Canada doesn’t seem too impressed with private companies setting their sites on countries like Kenya, where he works. Ndungu Kahihu confirms poorer areas are just not attractive to the private sector. “Save The Children Canada (SCC) has not been directly involved in the debate on privatization of water supply in Kenya,” Kahihu first explains. His organization has helped in building water projects for East Kenya since 1989. He says privatization has been followed by large increases in costs of water and only limited improvement in services. “In addition, we noted, only urban centre water supply systems have been candidates for privatization. Rural areas, where the majority live, have been left out.” Kenya has a population of 30 million, 60 percent of it rural, cites Kahihu. Over 50 percent of Kenyans subsist on less than one dollar a day. And with private water companies tapping in on urbanization, many of these rural Kenyans are left to fend for themselves; and they do it by way of internationally funded water projects. Not as glitzy as what the multinationals can offer, but also not marred by market analysis that excludes a large population.

SCC’s projects include rain water harvesting tanks for semi-arid districts in the eastern region of Kenya. Well versed on the household’s needs, women are the ones building the tanks since they take on the responsibility of providing water. “Each tank holds between 3,000 to 3,500 litres, enough to meet an average family’s cooking and drinking needs for three months,” says Kahihu. “It takes a group of 20 women three days to construct a tank. SCC provides materials, training and follows-up technical support with the women providing the labour.” Over the past five years, SCC has helped in the construction of 2,500 tanks, benefiting a similar number of families in the districts of Meru, Tharaka, and Kirinyaga, he says.


“WaterCan believes even rural communities can handle paying a portion of water supply costs, so long as the poorest households have access.”

Poorest of the poor

WaterCan believes even rural communities can handle paying a portion of water supply costs, so long as the poorest households have access.

“There are a number of options,” maintains Yap. “One way is to provide cross-subsidies where poor households get charged a lower rate than better-off households. Another way is to provide all households an initial amount of water at a lower rate but at higher rate as they consume more.” He calls this a “stepped tariff rate,” since better-off families typically use more water than poorer families. That’s the theory at least. In Delhi, India, vendors charged the poor US$4.89 per cubic metres for water, while households with piped connections paid US$0.01, according to a survey published in a UN report, just before the World Water Forum in Kyoto last year.
“The best service delivery option or mix of options will always be unique to a given location,” says Yap. He contends that’s because of various social, economic, and political factors. “Interestingly, during the 1990s many multinational water companies — especially European-based ones — had outlined big plans to expand into LDC markets. But after a decade of experience, their enthusiasm and expectations have become much more conservative after realizing that the operating environment in LDCs (Less Developed Countries) for various reasons is more complex, more challenging and ultimately not as profitably as originally thought,” says Yap.

More market talk. Still, Yap insists in order for any of these options to work, another crucial player must be in the game. “Implementing them requires local municipal governments to possess both the necessary resources and institutional capacity — both of which are lacking in many parts of the developing world.”

Canada and the Nile

An integrated water system for riparian states (those situated along the Nile) can be achieved, say some water experts. But again there will be a cost, and hopefully not to the environment. A Montreal-based consulting company is one of many punching in the numbers and developing plans. Hydrosult has been operating internationally in the water sector since 1980. Specializing in planning, management and engineering services, the firm’s clients are governments, multilateral agencies and private companies and institutions. A decade ago, the Technical Cooperation for the Promotion and Environmental Protection of the Nile Basin Committee (TECCONILE) and CIDA contacted Hydrosult. The firm’s specialists consulted with TECCONILE and evaluated basin needs. Hydrosult identified 22 projects to employ within a framework of a $100 million action plan.

In order to fund the Nile Basin Action Plan, the Nile countries requested the World Bank lead the initiative of coordinating input from donors, explains Ishmail Najjar, Hydrosult’s president. A partnership was struck between CIDA, the World Bank and UNDP, which resulted in them fine-tuning the Action Plan. Today, the 10 African countries relying on the Nile for about 300 million people are part of the Nile Basin Initiative; it provides an agreed basin-wide outline for fighting poverty and promoting socio-economic development in the area says Najjar.

But it takes time for progress to trickle down to where it’s ultimately needed. Namely, the rural areas in a lot of these Nile Basin countries are still dealing with the effects of water-borne diseases and water scarcity. This doesn’t have to be. In West Africa, Ghana is one country touted for its success in water and sanitation. A World Bank initiative, The Community Water and Sanitation Project provides basic water and sanitation services to communities that pay toward the capital costs. They also contribute money for the normal operations, maintenance and repair costs of their facilities. Ghana achieves this success by involving communities, and the private and public sector, reports the World Bank.

At all cost

But the world can’t yet bank on private sector companies solving water problems in Africa. Truth is, poor people who pay user fees for water often have their comments filtered by NGOs and international agencies. That can be bittersweet, mainly because opinions will vary and all kinds of agendas will get in the fast lane without a check on blind spots. There is no one solution. Rather, combinations appear a safer bet. Also, looking at the issues through different lenses might get everyone farther than expected. Take the popular, and often understandable, disdain for private companies.


“What we mean by the term ‘private sector,’ WaterCan understands this term to encompass more than just multinational private water companies,” says Yap. “A family that runs its own small water kiosk, a local company that operates a fleet of water tankers, or even a person who sells water from a handcart all could be considered belonging to the private sector.” He adds the water will still have to be obtained from a public or privately run water utility.  According to Kahihu, however, setting up water utility plants is not the only way of helping development. He remembers a time of trial and error for Kenya. “In the 1970’s and 80’s the government invested millions of dollars in huge rural water supply projects, many of which simply collapsed from neglect and the lack of technical skills required to maintain them,” says Kahihu. He recounts that the communities, for which these projects were planned, regarded the initiatives as government projects instead. “They felt little need to maintain and protect them. It would be a mistake to repeat such an expensive experiment again. On the other hand, providing small grants to villages to set up water projects may have a better chance of success,” suggests Kahihu.  Ideas for African villages, towns and cities are lighting up the pages of water assessment reports for international agencies. Funding is flowing so that women can assist in managing water. Urbanization is peaking the interest of the private sector. The world is seeing from Sudan to Uganda to even the Caribbean’s Haiti that poorer developing countries have a lot to contend with when it comes to the supply and the demand for water. And the water-rich nations, like Canada, are slowly realizing their misuse and waste of the natural resource is a point of contention for environmental activists throughout the world. No doubt about it, there’s increasing involvement in Africa and its crisis, as everyone agrees no one should go without clean water. But just like the meandering waters of the Nile, we still have a lot of ground to cover.

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