ISSN 2330-717X

COVID-19 Escalates Stakes For Africa’s Water Crisis – OpEd

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In Burkina Faso, only about half the population has access to clean water—something which has made containing the coronavirus pandemic a particular challenge. Ouagadougou, however, is now leading the charge to expand access to sanitary water, spearheading the creation of the Network of Parliamentarians for Water, Hygiene and Sanitation in West Africa (Repha – West Africa). 

In late August, the organisation, which comprises parliamentarians from seven West African countries—Burkina Faso, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad—held its constituent assembly over videoconferencing. The policymakers making up the association have pledged to work together to develop and implement strategies and policies to increase access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.

Such a laudable initiative couldn’t have come at a better time: the novel coronavirus has once again exposed the fragility of Africa’s health systems. Even as the coronavirus outbreak has worsened inequalities in terms of access to water and sanitation, the pandemic has made it clearer than ever how vital it is to even out the playing field. The question of access to safe water is a worldwide problem—some 29% of the global population has to contend with contaminated water—but it’s particularly acute in Africa. Of the 1.1 billion people living in sub-Saharan Africa, over 40% do not have access to clean water.

In Nigeria for example, about 60 million people lack access to clean water, while 150 million lack basic handwashing facilities.  In neighbouring Ghana, an estimated 5 million Ghanaians rely on groundwater to meet their daily needs, leaving them vulnerable to water-related diseases.

Kenya, meanwhile, may play host to Africa’s largest freshwater body, Lake Victoria—but roughly 41% of the East African nation’s 50 million population lack access to basic water services, according to figures from UNICEF. Poor management of water supply, water pollution and population growth continue to stall progress in addressing its water and sanitation problems.

In the continent’s southern reaches, Zimbabwe continues to wallow in perennial water shortages, much of which has existed before COVID-19. The percentage of people with access to clean water drastically reduced from 84% in 1988 to 64% in 2017.

People who lack clean water are confronted by myriad issues, from economic disadvantages—one study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that for each $1 invested in improved sanitation, there’s an average economic return of $5.5—to the risk of contracting any number of diseases, from cholera to typhoid. 

There have been concerns that the novel coronavirus, too, could be spread through unclean water. In May, scholars at the University of Stirling warned of a potential spread of COVID-19 via sewage. They found the virus can be present in human faeces for up to 33 days after the patient has tested negative for the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19.

At a minimum, better water infrastructure is key to slowing the disease’s spread given that it’s nearly impossible for people living in areas without running water or other sources of clean water to carry out the hygiene practices, such as hand washing, that are vital to curbing the pandemic. As the African Development Bank’s Acting Vice President of Agriculture, Human and Social Development, Wambui Gichuri, recently highlighted, a large swath of sub-Saharan Africans “are unable to heed the advice of health experts to wash their hands as a primary way to stop the spread of the virus”, all due to the lack of access to clean water.

Short-term solutions, of course, are cropping up. Throughout all of rural sub-Saharan Africa, an industry of merchants who fill containers with water and sell to the public is booming. African authorities are tapping into state funds or partnering with charities to distribute bottles of water or bring in water tankers.

Some, however, are seeing the COVID-19 crisis as a chance to address Africa’s water woes once and for all. “I think this is an opportunity […] it has shaken the decision-makers, it has shaken individuals, and I think the actors now can build from it for a more sustained approach and plan.” says Mariame Dem, West Africa regional director for WaterAid.

Admittedly, budgets are tighter around the world as the coronavirus has hit economies hard. However, the pandemic has emphasized that African governments and international associations alike should make safe drinking water & sanitation an investment priority.

Bottled water, water tankers and other temporary solutions may help in the short term, but much more is required if the continent’s longstanding water crisis is to be reversed. Long-term investment in beefing up water and sanitation infrastructure is essential to slowing the spread of Covid-19 and preventing waterborne diseases.

The EU and the World Bank have paved the way in demonstrating what water investment strategies should look like, and African leaders only need to toe the path. Grants (such as the European Investment Bank [EIB] 5 million Euros intervention in Zambia) continue to provide vital water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) supplies to vulnerable children and families across sub-Saharan Africa.

One other area where improvement is needed is the financial viability of water investment projects. A lack of market plans, government plans, feasibility studies, and cost benefit analyses mean lots of projects are not bankable. However, the UK Export Finance (UKEF)’s tri-partnership approach with the Government of Ghana and its private sector – using solar technology to provide water for about 225,000 people – is a more viable model. More such schemes should be rolled out across the continent.

Lastly, wastewater management should be prioritized. Just about 10% of wastewater is recycled in Africa compared to 100% in the Netherlands, 80% in Canada, and about 30% in India. However, Uganda is doing a better job and has received global recognition as an African pioneer in integrated water management.

A combined strategy of increased government spending, wastewater reuse and viable investment projects will significantly improve Africa’s water and sanitation conundrum, reaping significant economic and public health benefits and putting the continent on better footing to deal with crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

*Abiodun Saheed Owolegbon-Raji is a freelance writer and blogger with a background in political science and currently based in Lagos, Nigeria, and is a regular writer on issues that affect the African continent. 

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