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Rough road to sustainable development

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Rough road to sustainable development

Water, sanitation and housing among Africa's environment priorities
From Africa Renewal: 
AFP/Getty Images/Marco Longari
Nairobi, Kenya: Sixty per cent of the city's people live in slum areas. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/Marco Longari

More than a decade after the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the world is still scrambling to meet its ambitious targets. An estimated 1.5 billion people remain without safe drinking water and about 2.5 billion have no access to adequate sanitation. Almost 1 billion people, most of them in developing countries, live in slums, a figure expected to double over the next 30 years.

That was the grim picture portrayed at the 12th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), held in New York from April 14-30. The commission was set up to monitor the implementation of the Rio agreements, but delegates also reviewed progress in providing water, sanitation and human settlements, as spelled out at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Acute water problems

While the global picture is far from encouraging, that of Africa is much worse. On most indicators on the provision of water, sanitation and human settlements, progress remains slowest in the world's poorest region.

Although the Johannesburg summit set a target of reducing by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015, more than 300 million Africans still lack access to safe drinking water and 14 countries on the continent suffer from water scarcity. Out of 55 countries in the world with domestic water use below 50 litres per person per day (the minimum requirement set by the World Health Organization), 35 are in Africa. Almost half of all Africans suffer from one of six main water-related diseases.

The UN Development Programme reports that the proportion of urban dwellers with access to safe drinking water in Sub-Saharan Africa only declined slightly, from 86 per cent in 1990 to 83 per cent in 2000.

"Water problems in Africa are acute and complex," Nigerian Water Minister Mukhtari Shehu Shagari told the CSD session. Water bodies in Africa are shrinking. The size of Lake Chad, for example, has fallen from 25,000 square kilometers during the 1960s to less than 3,000 square kilometres today, affecting more than 20 million people.

Meanwhile, Africa has seemingly abundant water resources that are not being efficiently utilized. With 17 large rivers and more than 160 major lakes, Africa only uses about 4 per cent of its total annual renewable water resources for agriculture, industry and domestic purposes. The challenge, says Mr. Shagari, is getting water to where it is needed most, affordably and efficiently. Currently, about 50 per cent of urban water is wasted, as is 75 per cent of irrigation water.

Investments needed

At a pan-African conference on water in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in December 2003, African water ministers and development planners identified lack of money and technology as the major hindrances to solving Africa's water and sanitation problems. "The average annual investment between 1990 and 2000 for water supply and sanitation in Africa was $4.6 bn, or 40 per cent of the requirement for meeting basic needs," Mr. K.Y. Amoako, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa told the meeting.

Many countries do not have the money. During the last 20 years African economic growth rates were low, resulting in financial constraints and competition for ever-declining public resources. As a result, budgetary allocations to social services such as health, education, water supply and sanitation suffered. To make matters worse, donor support for the sector has also been declining.

The Addis Ababa meeting produced a framework for water management on the continent, "Africa Water Vision 2025," which calls for more resources to be allocated to the sector. The plan estimates that the continent needs to invest at least $20 bn annually over the next 20 years to attain its goals. Out of this amount, at least $12 bn would have to be spent on basic water supply and sanitation. "Water holds the key to achieving the goals of reducing poverty and hunger by 50 per cent by 2015," says Mr. Shagari, the water minister from Nigeria.

As a first step, the Addis Ababa conference agreed to establish national task forces to prepare country plans detailing annual service-delivery targets for achieving the water and sanitation goals. The ministers pledged to allocate at least 5 per cent of government budgets to water and sanitation within five years. They also agreed to set up a fund, the African Water Facility, to raise more than $600 mn by 2008 for water and sanitation programmes.

However, while most governments hide behind the excuse of lack of money, the real problem is how the money is being spent, says Mr. Gourisankar Ghosh, executive director of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, an international non-governmental organization. He says that about $5 bn in donor aid goes to water and sanitation each year, while governments in developing countries spend about the same amount. "The problem is that sanitation is a very local, household and individual issue, yet solutions are being implemented from a top-down government approach, without involving people," Mr. Ghosh told Africa Renewal. "When this fails, people claim that money is the problem."

Also, he says, many governments deal with the provision of water and sanitation as a single, separate entity rather than part of a broad development agenda encompassing education, women's empowerment, community participation, nurturing efficient markets and building human resources. "Sanitation is a multi-faceted issue. It is not just about building a latrine."

Growing slums

UN Conference on Human Settlements Executive Director Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka expresses similar sentiments about governments and community involvement in the provision of housing. "The poor are not just passive objects," she says. "Most often they are solving their own problems, but governments are failing to recognize their efforts. Instead of harnessing their energy they are discouraging the poor from participating in the improvement of their own living conditions."

There are many well-documented examples of communities taking charge of their housing needs despite little or no government assistance. For example, in South Africa a popular movement known as the South African Homeless Peoples Federation has been encouraging local communities to organize themselves into informal savings groups to build their own houses. Since its establishment in the early 1990s, the federation has seen 14,000 low-cost houses built across South Africa by former slum-dwellers, the majority of them women. The federation is currently supporting similar savings groups in Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Namibia, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In some African urban areas, the problems of providing housing are further complicated by numerous governance issues, such as poor accountability and lack of capacity, that hinder effective urban management. The weakness of central government and municipalities gives rise to a situation "where nobody is taking charge, nobody is providing guidance," Ms. Rosemary Rop, of the Kenyan non-governmental organization Maji Na Ufanisi, told Africa Renewal.

To make matters worse, governments do not commit sufficient resources to address the problems of existing slums, further reducing them to wastelands of overcrowding, poverty and social exclusion. "Governments simply label these informal settlements as illegal and do not provide services to them," says Ms. Rop. In Nairobi, 60 per cent of the population lives in slums that occupy only 5 per cent of the city's land. This is the case in most large African cities, where between 40 and 70 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums.

The task ahead appears insurmountable. While world leaders have pledged to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020, the number of people living in informal settlements is expected to double to 2 billion people in the next 30 years.

If Africa is to attain its sustainable development goals, it needs solutions that bring in all sectors, says UN Special Adviser on Africa Ibrahim Gambari. "If there is one lesson that we have learned about development, it is that partnership among the public and private sector and civil society is essential," he says. "Water, sanitation and human settlements lend themselves to many creative forms of partnerships." However, he notes, "communal action cannot and should not substitute for effective public policy. Governments should take the lead in achieving the commitments that they have pledged to undertake."