Africa: 430 million don’t have water to drink

Ellanie Smit
Nearly 430 million people in Africa lack access to drinkable water, while 870 million do not have access to basic sanitation on the continent.

Agriculture and water minister Calle Schlettwein said Africa’s population is growing at a rate that is much faster than the global average, while rapid urbanisation is observed across the continent.

He pointed out that the underdevelopment of water infrastructure accounts for up to 2% of Africa’s lost annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

At a high-level dialogue session with the permanent representatives of the United Nations (UN) on ‘How African States Could Benefit from a UN Special Envoy on Water’, Schlettwein said the absolute necessity of water security and safely managing sanitation for economic growth and socio-economic transformation can no longer be overlooked, and must be re-emphasised.

He said Africa is a net importer of staple food, despite large swatches of available arable land and water resource generation potential.

“In the presence of increasing episodes of climate change and variability, intensive agriculture is a key transformational strategy for the continent, for which secure water supply and the related investment in distribution infrastructure and smart irrigation technology are indispensable.”

Refocus efforts

Schlettwein said they, therefore, need to refocus ongoing efforts to improve the investment outlook for water infrastructure development as well as improve water governance and management capacities at all levels.

“It is against this background that the proposal for a Special Envoy was roundly supported by Africa during the ninth World Water Forum in Senegal in March.”

He said the appointment of a Water Envoy is an important step towards enhancing dialogue and outreach as well as reinforcing the interest and the under-represented voice of vulnerable regions like Africa.

“Our expectations are for the incumbent to strengthen Africa’s voice at global level on water issues and its cross-sectoral linkages to climate resilience, agriculture, biodiversity and industrialisation.”

Schlettwein said Africa stands to benefit from the services of the envoy to draw attention to the unique water-related challenges facing the continent.

He added that land constitutes the most important factor of production and survival for people in Africa.

According to him, about 70% of Africa’s labour force is involved in agriculture, which in turn contributes to over 25% of the GDP for some countries and much lower for other countries.

“Indeed, Africa yearns for reliable and affordable water supply to not only improve the quality of life, but also the quality of growth which goes beyond mere GDP expansion to a growth paradigm which results in increased income per capita, improvements in the balance of payments and more jobs.”

Under threat

Schlettwein said the agricultural sector and the rural economy on which the majority of Africa’s populations depend for their livelihoods are under threat from negative impacts of climate change and increasing climate variability.

“Growing uncertainty with regards to rainfall and shifting crop water requirements threaten Africa’s largely rain-fed agricultural sector. Risks and uncertainties to economic productivity and political stability are growing with the increasing incidence of water-borne diseases, droughts, floods and landslides.”

He said they therefore support the proposition that the envoy should be appointed to champion cross-sectoral implementation of solutions to address these challenges within existing UN structures and initiatives; enhance integration and coherence in the pursuit of thematic priorities in water, food, energy, ecosystems security and climate resilience; steward interventions to leverage resources for accelerated progress towards the achievement of water and sanitation goals in Africa, and provide a mechanism for coordination, mutual support and highlighting of water as an essential ingredient in the advent of a green economy on the continent.