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The Future of Water in African Cities
Lee-Roy Chetty   Jan 18, 2013   Ethical Technology  

It is widely accepted that one of the major challenges of the 21st century is to provide safe drinking water and basic sanitation for all.

Currently, close to 1 billion people lack access to improved water sources, and over 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation – nearly all of these people live in developing countries. According to the Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) report, Sub Saharan Africa with, water supply coverage of about 60% is lagging behind in progress to achieve the MDG target.

Sanitation coverage in developing countries (49%) is only half that of the developed world (98%). The number of deaths attributable to poor sanitation and hygiene alone may be as high as 1.6 million a year.

Statistics on wastewater treatment reveal that almost 85% of global wastewater is discharged without treatment leading to serious impacts on public health and the receiving water’s ecosystems.

In Sub-Saharan Africa the coverage is a mere 36%, and over half of those are without improved sanitation. With the current coverage of about 31% the region is not expected to meet the sanitation target by 2015.

On the other hand wastewater collection, storm water drainage and solid waste collection services are inadequate in most of the developing countries.

Africa’s urban water systems are either poorly planned and designed, or operated without adequate maintenance, which means that the existing services are often of poor quality. The situation is even worse in the area of low-income settlements. Septic tanks and feeder networks regularly discharge effluent into street gutters, open streams or drainage canals. This creates unpleasant living conditions, public health risks and environmental damage.
Achieving environmentally acceptable water and sanitation solutions is a major technical challenge, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas.

The physical availability of water resources on a sustainable basis (and access to technologies suited to that environment) limits efforts to increase sustainable access to water and sanitation.

For example in the past 20 years, available fresh water resources in Africa have greatly reduced due to severe and prolonged droughts. A sharp decline in availability of fresh water supply due to hydrologic, climatic and environmental changes is visible even in the Congo-Zaire basin, which accounts for 50% of the water resources on the continent.

In addition, the provision of continuity of service and its reliance on good operation and maintenance is technically challenging for most cities in Africa. The design of water distribution systems in general has been based on the assumption of continuous supply however, in most of the cities; the water supply system is intermittent.

Many studies have revealed that water losses in those cities are at levels of between 40-60% of water supplied. Any reduction in water losses requires coherent action to address not only technical and operational issues but also institutional, planning, financial and governance issues. Most of the technologies available are centralized and highly sophisticated end-of-pipe technologies.

Lack of appropriate institutions at all levels and the chronic dysfunction of institutional arrangements is yet another challenge. Institutions responsible for service provision need technical, financial, managerial and social intermediation capacity that is lacking in most African cities. The result of this has been lack of adequate policy and sound regulatory system which have generally constrained good performance by public as well as private sector operators.
Poverty is a principal impediment to increasing access to services, from the household to the national level. Expanding access to water supply and sanitation requires funding - whether from national and sub-national government tax revenues; user charges; cross subsidies from users who can afford to pay; private-sector investment; and official development assistance. Funds must be available not simply to construct new water and sanitation facilities, but also to support their operation and maintenance over the long term. Hence, without financial sustainability, investments made in pursuit of water supply and sanitation will likely yield only temporary benefits.

Africa’s ability to provide effective water supply and sanitation is further impeded by a range of dynamic global and regional pressures.

Climate change is predicted to cause significant changes to precipitation and temperature patterns. It will affect different cities in different ways with some experiencing more frequent droughts and water shortage while others will have more intense storm events with subsequent flooding issues. In some of the African cities, combined sewers are still in use and excess storm flows may damage the sewer infrastructure, flood urban areas and aggravate pollution of recipient water bodies.

Population growth and urbanization are enforcing rapid changes leading to a dramatic increase in high-quality water consumption. Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent and will have more urban population than rural by 2030.

The urban population in Africa is expected to grow to 1.23 billion in 2050 and about 60% will be living in cities. The unplanned urbanisation leading to the informal settlement (the highest annual slum growth rate of 4.53% per year and is expected to have the largest number of slums by 2020) is creating additional pressures for Urban Water Management (UWM).

Existing infrastructure is aging and deteriorating.

In most of the cities, infrastructure for urban water systems (storage, treatment, transport and distribution) have exceeded their design periods and have not received the priority for maintenance and replacement. It is a technological and financial challenge to maintain and upgrade it such that quality of water can continue to be delivered to all sectors and wastewater can be adequately collected and treated.

To ensure a more sustainable future there is a need to do things differently.

This should be based on key concepts of integrated urban water management (IUWM) that include: interventions over the entire urban water cycle; reconsideration of the way water is used (and reused); and greater application of innovative approaches and the integration of institutions. In addition there is a need to recognize the high-level relationships among water resources, energy, and land use in an urbanizing world.

More is needed than simply improving the performance and efficiency of the component parts of the built environment – change is needed at a system-wide level as well.

Click Here for More Information on the IEET's African Futures Project

Lee-Roy Chetty holds a masters degree in media studies from the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A two-time recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, he is currently completing his PhD at UCT and an economics degree with Unisa.

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