• Quenching the thirst

    The percentage of African households with access to safe water remains below the global norm but many countries on the continent have taken great strides to expand their water services.

    Quenching the thirst

    Since 2000, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have made impressive progress in terms of improving the delivery of water services.

    According to a report by UNICEF, the Children’s Rights and Emergency Relief Organisation of the United Nations (UN), almost a quarter of the population (about 219 million) gained access to an improved drinking water source over the past 12 years. That’s roughly 50 000 people per day.

    The report showed that while sub-Saharan Africa would most probably fail to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the share of the population that lacks access to safe water services by 2015, some countries, including Malawi, South Africa and Namibia, are on track to meet their aims.

    In 2014, about 60% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa had access to reliable water compared with the global average of 72%.

    A 2013 UN assessment of Africa’s progress with regard to achieving the MDGs noted that the population relying on unimproved surface water in Southern, East, Central and West Africa had declined from an average of 24% in 1990 to 13% in 2010.

    The population relying on improved water sources rose from 34% to 45%, but the population relying on piped water on premises increased only marginally by one percentage point to 16%.

    Progress has been much better in North Africa where the share of the population relying on piped water on premises increased from 58% to 83%.

    The degree to which water supply services have improved can vary drastically. Even within regions, some countries are closer than others in achieving the MDG water target.

    According to the World Bank, only about 2% of Ugandan households have piped-water compared to about 60% in South Africa.

    Burkina Faso has managed a noteworthy achievement in increasing household access to piped water. Between 1985 and 2000, the population of the country’s capital city Ouagadougou doubled to nearly one million inhabitants, placing much strain on the city’s water supply services.

    The government, with support from a World Bank water supply project (which was launched in 2001), managed to triple the number of Ouagadougou residents with household connections to piped water in six years, from 300 000 in 2001 to 1.04 million people in 2007.

    In addition, the World Bank launched the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Pilot Project in Madagascar in a bid to support the country’s government in improving water supply services, especially to those living in rural areas.

    In 2014, about 60% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa had access to reliable water compared with the global average of 72%

    According to the World Bank, in the 1990s only about 12% of the 12.5 million people living in rural areas in Madagascar had access to potable water.

    With the project’s help, by 2005 about 400 000 people gained access to safe water through the construction of 627 boreholes equipped with hand pumps.

    According to the Nedbank Capital African Infrastructure Review June 2013, Ghana has initiated a programme intended to improve water supplies to 600 000 people living in rural areas by providing 20 000 boreholes. In 2013, the Ghana government announced it needed US$225 million annually to construct sustainable water and sanitation facilities.

    Meanwhile, a UN progress report on MDG achievements in Africa stated that Mozambique has given high priority to water-related infrastructure development. Its government is financing large schemes for rainwater harvesting, including excavated reservoirs in its Gaza province, the driest area of the country, to minimise the severity of droughts.

    Funds are also being mobilised for 20 small dams to ease the impact droughts have on the country.

    The same UN report also praised Benin, stating that the country ‘has made good progress in drinking water supply. Many boreholes, hand-dug wells and piped systems were built for rural and small towns’ water supply, and as a result the average coverage of drinking water in rural areas increased from 39% in 2004 to 57% in 2010’.

    However, despite the notable achievements by African countries in improving water services in urban and rural areas, there are still about 327 million sub-Saharan Africans without access to safe drinking water. What’s concerning is that the progress made in terms of water supply services is highly inequitable, with urban dwellers far more likely to have access to water services than those in rural areas, and the rich are more likely to have received services than the poor.

    Only 4% of rural households in Africa receive piped water, compared with 38% in urban areas, according to a recent World Bank report on Africa’s water and sanitation infrastructure.

    In many of the largest cities in sub-Saharan Africa, the average coverage level for improved water supply was roughly 90% in 2012 and improving every year, while more than 80% of Africa’s rural households rely on boreholes and untreated surface water.

    The World Bank report also stated that access to piped water is heavily concentrated among the more affluent segments of the population, and only 10% of African households in the bottom 60% (in terms of household income) are covered by piped supply.

    A 2014 article by Mike Hopewell and Jay Graham (published by BioMed Central) investigated the trends in access to water supply and sanitation in 31 major sub-Saharan African cities. It found that 26 of the cities surveyed were generally increasing access to water supply, with an average improvement of 0.7% points annually between 2000 and 2012.

    For the whole sub-Saharan African region, overall (rural and urban) access to improved water supply increased from 49% to 61% between 1990 and 2010.

    ‘The average coverage level for improved water supply for the 26 cities was found to be 91.7%. This figure ranged from the poorest coverage of Luanda with 63.9% to Addis Ababa with 99.9%,’ the article stated.

    Fifteen of the cities that were surveyed were found to have coverage levels of at least 95%; an additional five had coverage levels higher than 90%.

    According to Hopewell and Graham, the one with the greatest progress over the study period was Benin City in Nigeria with an average annual improvement of 4.7%.

    Even with cost recovery and improvements in efficiency, the water sector will still have a sizeable funding gap to overcome

    One of the challenges African countries face in terms of water supply services is the under-pricing of water. The African Development Bank Group estimates that to meet the MDGs for water, the continent would have to spend US$22.6 billion annually, far more than the current US$7.9 billion.

    Furthermore, the operating inefficiencies of utilities deprive the region of about US$3.7 billion in revenue each year and prevent water from being made available to the poor. But even with cost recovery and improvements in efficiency, the water sector will still have a sizable funding gap to overcome.

    Last year, the SA government announced that it needs to spend around ZAR700 billion (US$65 billion) over the next 10 to 15 years to ensure the country’s water supplies.

    According to further Nedbank Capital African Infrastructure Review report, 42% and 45% of the required funding is available from existing sources. This implies that the country will have to rely on bond markets, banks and customer revenue to finance the gap.

    The review also said that, despite heavy investment in water infrastructure, utilities across the African continent continue to make losses as a result of water theft or leakages through the supply chain. This is turn requires governments to sustain them with huge subsidies – a situation that can simply no longer be afforded.

    Take Ghana for example. As the UN stated in their report: ‘Ghana Water cannot account for 55% of the water it produces, either because consumers illegally siphon it off from pipes or because an ageing water supply infrastructure breaks down or leaks.’

    The World Bank, via the Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic, conducted a survey to examine Africa’s ability to pay for water services. The findings were published in a report titled Africa’s Water and Sanitation Infrastructure: Access, Affordability, and Alternatives

    It found that most African households live on very modest budgets. ‘Household budgets range from US$60 per month in the lowest quintile to no more than US$400 per month in the highest income quintile except in middle-income countries, where the richest quintile has a monthly budget of US$200 to US$1 300.’

    Monthly spending on water averages about US$4. That’s 2% of household budgets, and it rarely exceeds 3%.

    Only in Cameroon, Mauritania, and Rwanda are water expenses more than 5% of the household budget.

    ‘Overall, an estimated 12% of those who have household connections to piped water do not appear to be paying for them in any given month,’ stated the report.

    The survey also found that amongst the poorest households, the non-payment ratio amounts to approximately 63% and declines steadily to 26% for the richest households.

    ‘The extent to which non-payment is higher among the poorest can be seen as an indicator that households are facing affordability problems. The need to provide Africans with safe drinking water is immense and immediate,’ stated the report.

    ‘As a poor continent, however, Africa lacks the level of household and government funds required to significantly expand water networks and improve service quality.’

    The report suggests that addressing utility inefficiencies, increasing private participation and improving governance internally will contribute significantly to closing the water sector funding gap in many countries.

    By Alida van Heerden
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages