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Increasing access to drinking water in Africa

  • Increasing access to drinking water in Africa
    © UNICEF/Esiebo

This week we celebrated World Water Day to emphasise the importance of water and raise awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe water. To mark the occasion, Afrik 21 has taken a close look at the water crisis in the African continent, highlighting major challenges ahead as well as steps taken to address them.

Like the rest of the world, Africa faces major challenges: population growth, climate change and the current health crisis threaten people and their livelihoods. Home to 17% of the global population today – 1.3 billion people – the UN’s growth forecasts are daunting: by 2050 Africa’s population is expected to almost double, and by 2100 it will likely be 4.5 billion people, or 40% of humanity. Needless to say, population growth will amplify the challenges related to drinking water access.

On a positive note, many initiatives are underway to improve the water supply in the continent. The Nigerian government’s Sustainable Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project, launched in 2016, comprises several components, including drinking water supply systems operated by solar off-grid facilities, and human-powered pumps. Moreover, drinking water treatment plants are being upgraded, such as the Gubi Dam and Water Treatment plant in Bauchi State. Elsewhere in Angola, a drinking water treatment plant with a capacity of 260,000 m3 per day is being built by Suez in Bita, located 40 km southeast of Luanda, to meet the needs of Luanda’s growing population.

Earlier this month, the Goudel IV drinking water treatment plant was inaugurated in Niger, increasing the capacity of the existing plant with an additional 40,000 m3. With the new facility, the proportion of people with access to drinking water in the capital Niamey will increase to more than 95%, according to Nigerien authorities, one of the highest in West Africa.

On the other hand, climate change has led to intensified water stress in some African countries, as changes in rainfall patterns and increased drought make it more difficult to obtain water from conventional sources. Some coastal countries have therefore turned to desalination. That is the case of Namibia, one of the driest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, planning the development of the Walvis Bay desalination project together with Botswana. Both countries will share the water produced, and the water for Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, will be transported over nearly 1,500 km.

Wastewater reuse is another unconventional source of water that is expected to expand. The reuse of treated water as drinking water has been used in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, since 1968, with the first plant in the world to develop this type of process. Namibia is the only country in Africa to reuse wastewater for potable uses, but others may follow suit. Elsewhere in the continent, reused water is mainly used for irrigation, freeing up groundwater and surface water for drinking purposes.

Rainwater harvesting could also be expanded to improve access to drinking water. According to UNESCO, the amount of rain the continent receives would be enough to meet the needs of 9 billion people, that is, 1.5 times the world’s population. For now, rainwater is stored for irrigation purposes, such as in Tadla, in central Morocco, where a project to build a rainwater retention basin will enable farmers to increase their productivity.

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