Drinking Water/Scarcity/Africa

The Subsaharan region of africa had the largest number of water-stressed countries of any other place on the globe. In Africa, the struggle for access to clean drinking water is one of today's most obvious examples of how water scarcity leads to the stalling and reversal of human progress. While each individual living in the United States uses on average 100 to 175 gallons of water per day in the home, the average African family uses only 5 gallons of water per day. [1] This vast disparity of clean water availability and consumption is reflected in a number of different developmental aspects. These consequences include the effects on health, opportunities for women, children's education, agricultural practices, regional conflict, and productivity and development.

13-year-old student from Malawi now has access to safe water thanks to Water Mission.

Impact on developmentEdit


Health screening exercise in Accra

The most immediately apparent impact of water scarcity in Africa is on the continent's health. Infants and children are especially susceptible to these diseases because of their inexperienced immune systems,[2] which lends to elevated infant mortality rates in many regions of Africa.

When infected with these waterborne diseases, those living in African communities suffering from water scarcity cannot contribute to the community’s productivity and development because of a simple lack of strength. Additionally, economic resources are sapped by the cost of medicine to treat waterborne diseases, which takes away from resources that might have been used for food or school fees.[2] This also takes a toll on the governmental funds. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) estimates that in Sub-Saharan Africa, treatment of diarrhea due to water contamination consumes 12 percent of the country’s health budget. With better water conditions, the burden on healthcare would be less substantial and a healthier workforce[3] would stimulate economic growth and pull many people out of poverty.

Women, children, and educationEdit

Ghanaian women weaving

African women are disproportionally burdened by scarcity of clean drinking water. In most African societies, women are seen as the collectors, managers, and guardians of water, especially within the domestic sphere that includes household chores, cooking, washing, and child rearing.[4] Because of these traditional gender labor roles, women are forced to spend around sixty percent of each day collecting water, which translates to approximately 200 million collective work hours by women globally per day.[5] For African women, this often means carrying the typical jerrycan that can weigh over 40 pounds when full[2] for an average of six kilometers each day.[1] As a result of this, many women are unable to hold professional employment.

Additionally, this prevents many young girls from attending school and receiving an education. They are expected to not only aid their mothers in water retrieval, but to also help with the demands of household chores that are made more time-intensive because of a lack of readily available water. Furthermore, a lack of clean water means the absence of sanitary facilities and latrines in schools, and so once puberty hits, this has the largest impact on female children. In terms of lost educational opportunity, if adequate investment were made in drinking water and sanitation, it is estimated that it would result in 272 million more school attendance days per year.[5] This lost number of potential school days and education results in the hindrance of the next generation’s African females from breaking out of the cycle of unequal opportunity for gainful employment. Because of this, available clean water for women and children translates to Africans with potential for education, prosperity, power, literacy, hygiene, security, and equality.[6]


Woman in Burkina Faso using treated wastewater for agriculture. The background shows a lot of vegetation and crops.

The majority of Africa remains dependent on an agricultural lifestyle and so water scarcity translates to a loss of food security. At this point, the majority of rural African communities are not tapping into their irrigation potential, and according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa and New Partnership for Africa’s Development, "irrigation is key to achieving increased agricultural production that is important for economic development and for attaining food security".[7] But for many regions, there is a lack of financial and human resources to support infrastructure and technology required for proper crop irrigation. Because of this, the impact of droughts, floods, and desertification is greater in terms of both African economic loss and human life loss due to crop failure and starvation. Additionally, lack of water causes many Africans to use wastewater for crop growth, then causing a large number of people to consume foods that can contain chemicals or disease-causing organisms transferred by the wastewater.[8] Thus, for the extremely high number of African areas suffering from water scarcity issues, investing in development means sustainably withdrawing from clean freshwater sources, ensuring food security by expanding irrigation areas, and effectively managing the effects of climate change.[7]


The explosion of populations in developing nations within Africa combined with climate change is causing extreme strain within and between nations. In the past, countries have worked to resolve water tensions through negotiation, but there is predicted to be an escalation in aggression over water accessibility. Federal intelligence agencies have issued the joint judgment that in the next ten years, water issues are not likely to cause internal and external tensions to intensify to war, but after 2022 there is expected to be a change.[9] Based on the classified National Intelligence Estimate on water security, requested by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and completed in Fall 2011, after 2022 water will be more likely to be used as a weapon of war and potential tool for terrorism, especially in w:North Africa.[9] On World Water Day, the State Department stated that water stress, "will likely increase the risk of instability and state failure, exacerbate regional tensions and distract countries from working with the United States on important policy objectives." Specifically referring to the Nile in Egypt, Sudan, and nations further south, the report predicts that upstream nations will limit access to water for political reasons, and that terrorists may target water related infrastructures, such as reservoirs and dams, more frequently.[9] Because of this, the World Economic Forum's 2011 Global Risk Report has included water as one of the world’s top five risks for the first time.

Productivity and developmentEdit

Poverty is directly related to the accessibility of clean drinking water- without it, the chances of breaking out of the poverty trap is extremely slim. The social and economic consequences of a lack of clean water penetrate into realms of education, opportunities for gainful employment, physical strength and health, agricultural and industrial development, and thus the overall productive potential of a community, nation, and/or region. Because of this, the UN estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion potential work hours per year collecting water.[2] Because of this, the United Nations Development Programme estimated that in Africa, every dollar spent on water and sanitation generates a nine-fold return in saved time, increased productivity and reduced health cost.[citation needed]

Reasons for scarcityEdit

Climate changeEdit

According to the Africa Partnership Forum, “Although Africa is the continent least responsible for climate change, it is particularly vulnerable to the effects,” and the long-term impacts include, “changing rainfall patterns affecting agriculture and reducing food security; worsening water security; decreasing fish resources in large lakes due to rising temperature; shifting vector-borne diseases; rising sea level affecting low-lying costal areas with large populations; and rising water stress”.[10] Because of Africa’s dependence on rain-fed agriculture, widespread poverty, and weak capacity, the water issues caused by climate change impact the continent much more violently compared to developed nations that have the resources and economic diversity to deal with such global changes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that climate change in Africa has manifested itself in more intense and longer droughts in the subtropics and tropics, while arid or semi-arid areas in northern, western, eastern, and parts of southern Africa are becoming drier and more susceptible to variability of precipitation and storms.[10] Overall this means that water stress caused by changing amounts of precipitation is particularly damaging to Africa and thus climate change is one of the major obstacles the continent must face when trying to secure reliable and clean sources of water.

Physical scarcity and economic scarcityEdit

Water scarcity is both a natural and human-made phenomenon.[11] It is thus essential to break it down into two general types: Economic scarcity and physical scarcity. Economic scarcity refers to the fact that finding a reliable source of safe water is time consuming and expensive. Alternatively, physical scarcity is when there simply is not enough water.[2]

The 2006 United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that 300 million out of the 800 million who live on the African continent live in a water-scarce environment.[7] Specifically in the very north of Africa, as well the very south of Africa, the rising global temperatures accompanying climate change have intensified the hydrological cycle that leads to dryer dry seasons, thus increasing the risk of more extreme and frequent droughts. This significantly impacts the availability, quality and quantity of water due to reduced river flows and reservoir storage, lowering of water tables and drying up of aquifers in the northern and southern regions of Africa.

The majority of Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from economic scarcity that exists because of population’s lack of the necessary monetary means to utilize adequate sources of water. Both political reasons and ethnic conflict have contributed to this unequal distribution of resources. Out of the two forms of water scarcity, economic scarcity can be addressed quickly and effectively with simple infrastructure to collect rainwater from roofs and dams, but this requires economic resources that many of these areas lack due to an absence of industrial development and widespread poverty.[2]

Addressing the issueEdit

International effortsEdit

To adequately address the issue of water scarcity in Africa, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa emphasizes the need to invest in the development of Africa’s potential water resources to reduce unnecessary suffering, ensure food security, and protect economic gains by effectively managing droughts, floods, and desertification.[7] Some suggested and on going efforts to achieve this include digging wells, rainwater harvesting, and building clean-water catchment and storage tanks.

Non-governmental organizations' effortsEdit

In addition to the role the United States, the United Nations, and international governmental aid are all playing in helping bring clean water to water stressed regions of Africa, a number of NGOs have formed water charities to work towards that same goal of providing clean water for the continent by 2015. These charities are based on individual and group donations, which are then invested in a variety of methods and technologies to bring clean water to regions in Africa.[12] Some notable NGOs working towards this goal include, but are not limited to:

  • A Drop In The Bucket [13]
  • Blood: Water Mission [14]
  • Blue Planet Network [15]
  • charity: water [16]
  • Generosity Water [17]
  • H2O For Life [18]
  • Just A Drop [19]
  • Lifewater International [20]
  • Living Water International [21]
  • Pump Aid-Water for Life [22]
  • Ok Clean Water Project [23]
  • Ryan’s Well Foundation [24]
  • The Water Project [25]
  • WaterAid [26]
  • WaterCan/ EauVive [27]
  • Water For People [28]
  • Water Is Life [29]
  • Water.org [30]
  • Thirst Relief International [31]

Solutions and technologiesEdit

The more basic solutions to help provide Africa with drinkable and usable water include well-digging, rain catchment systems, de-worming pills, and hand pumps, but high demand for clean water solutions has also prompted the development of some key creative solutions as well.

Some non-profit organizations have focused on the aspect of drinking water contamination against sewage waste by installing cost-effective and relatively maintenance-free toilets, such as Drop In The Bucket’s “Eco-sanitation Flush Toilet” [13] or Pump Aid’s “Elephant Toilet”.[22] The Elephant Toilet uses community-sourced resources in construction to build a relatively simple waste disposal mechanism that separates solids from liquids to promote faster decomposition and lower the impact on ground water.[22] In comparison, the Eco-Sanitation Flush Toilet also uses no power of any kind, but actually treats sewage rather than just storing it so that the toilet’s output is only water.[13] Both solutions are then simple for residents of African communities to maintain and have a notable impact on the cleanliness of local water sources.

Overall, a wide range of cost-effective, manageable, and innovative solutions are available to help aid Africa in producing clean, disease-free water. Also NGOs can help donate water to help Africa. Ultimately what it comes down to is using technology appropriate for each individual community’s needs. For the technology to be effective, it must conform to environmental, ethical, cultural, social, and economic aspects of each Africa community.[20] If this can be done, with sufficient funding and aid to implement such technologies, it is feasible to eliminate clean water scarcity for the African continent by the Millennium Development Goal deadline of 2015.


Africa is home to both the largest number of water-scarce countries out of any region, as well as home to the most difficult countries to reach in terms of water aid. The prevalence of rural villages traps many areas in what the UN Economic Commission for Africa refers to as the "Harvesting Stage",[7] which makes water-scarce regions difficult to aid because of a lack of industrial technology to make solutions sustainable. In addition to the geographic and developmental limiting factors, a number of political, economic reasons also stand in the way of ensuring adequate aid for Africa. Politically, tensions between local governments versus foreign non-governmental organizations impact the ability to successfully bring in money and aid-workers. Economically, urban areas suffer from extreme wealth gaps in which the overwhelming poor often pay four to ten times more for sanitary water than the elite, hindering the poor from gaining access to clean water technologies and efforts.[7] As a result of all these factors, it is estimated that fifty percent of all water projects fail, less than five percent of projects are visited, and less than one percent have any long-term monitoring.[5]

External linksEdit


  1. a b "The Facts About The Global Drinking Water Crisis". 2010. http://blueplanetnetwork.org/water/facts. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  2. a b c d e f "Water Scarcity: The Importance of Water & Access". http://thewaterproject.org/water_scarcity.asp. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  3. Sandy Cairncross (1988). "4". in Douglas Rimmer. Rural Transformation in Tropical Africa. Great Britain: Belhaven Press. pp. 49–54. 
  4. "Impacts of Water Scarcity on Women's Life". http://www.worldpulse.com/node/20165. Retrieved 1 April 2012. 
  5. a b c "Women Affected by the Crisis". http://water.org/learn-about-the-water-crisis/women. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  6. "Women for Water". http://womenforwater.com. Retrieved 1 April 2012. 
  7. a b c d e f "Management Options to Enhance Survival and Growth". http://www.uneca.org/awich/Water%20in%20Africa.pdf. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  8. "10 Facts About Water Scarcity". http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/water/en/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  9. a b c "US Intel: Water a Cause for War in Coming Decades". http://www.twincities.com/ci_20230354/us-intel-water-cause-war-coming-decades?IADID=Search-www.twincities.com-www.twincities.com. Retrieved 23 March 2012. 
  10. a b "Climate Change and Africa". http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/57/7/38897900.pdf. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  11. "International Decade for Action: Water for Life 2005-2015". http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  12. "Water Charities:A Comprehensive List". http://www.filtersfast.com/articles/Water-Charities-A-Comprehensive-List.php. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  13. a b c "A Drop In The Bucket". http://www.dropinthebucket.org/about. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  14. "Blood: Water Mission". http://www.bloodwatermission.com/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  15. "Blue Planet Network". http://blueplanetnetwork.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  16. "charity:water". http://www.charitywater.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  17. "Generosity Water". http://www.generositywater.com/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  18. "H2O For Life". http://www.h2oforlifeschools.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  19. "Just A Drop". http://www.justadrop.org/page.cfm/NewSection=Yes/GoSection=0. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  20. a b "Lifewater International". http://www.lifewater.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  21. "Living Water International". https://www.water.cc/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  22. a b c "Pump Aid-Water For Life". http://pumpaid.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  23. "Ok Clean Water Project". http://www.okcleanwaterproject.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  24. "Ryan's Well Foundation". http://ryanswell.ca/home.aspx. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  25. "The Water Project". http://thewaterproject.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  26. "WaterAid". http://www.wateraidamerica.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  27. "WaterCan EauVive". http://www.watercan.com/index.php. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  28. "Water For People". http://www.waterforpeople.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  29. "Water Is Life". http://waterislife.com/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  30. "Water.org". http://water.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  31. "Thirst Relief International". http://www.thirstrelief.org/. Retrieved 11 April 2012.