Past, present and future perspectives


Low investment in water supply and infrastructure maintenance, increasing demand from all sectors and inequitable access policies have added further strain to the situation, resulting in highly skewed access to water resources

Water stress (less than 1 700 m3/capita/yr) or water scarcity (less than 1 000m3/capita/yr) is already observed in 14 of the 53 African countries (WRI 2000). The high demand for water is driving unsustainable practices, and competition for water resources between sectors, communities, and nations. On occasion, it has been the cause of strained relations and hostility. For example, in Libya, annual withdrawals of groundwater are more than 500 times the rate of replenishment (UNDP and others 2000). In Egypt, 90 per cent of all freshwater resources are derived from the Nile River and, because this is a shared watercourse with nine other nations, securing access and usage rights has been a contentious process.

With such limited, variable or unevenly distributed freshwater resources in Africa, it is not surprising that access to water is a major factor in social and economic development. Over the past 30 years, the response to this has been to dam or to modify large rivers in order to provide water for agricultural, domestic and industrial use, as well as to supply hydropower (see Box 2e.2). Low investment in water supply and infrastructure maintenance, increasing demand from all sectors and inequitable access policies have added further strain to the situation, resulting in highly skewed access to water resources.

Box 2e.2 Large dams in Africa

There are more than 1 200 dams in Africa,more than 60 per cent of which are located in South Africa (539) and Zimbabwe (213).Most of these were constructed during the past 30 years, coincident with rising demands for water from growing populations. The overwhelming majority of dams in Africa have been constructed to facilitate irrigation (52 per cent) and to supply water to municipalities (20 per cent), although almost 20 per cent of dams are multipurpose. Although only 6 per cent of dams were built primarily for electricity generation, hydroelectric power accounts for more than 80 per cent of total power generation in 18 African countries, and for more than 50 per cent in 25 countries. Only 1 per cent of African dams have been constructed to provide flooding control.

Besides providing these benefits and services, however, dams have had several negative impacts, including: large-scale displacement of people; altered patterns of erosion and flooding; loss of land, due to flooding; loss of income from downstream fisheries; and changes to sedimentation rates. These ecological and social concerns - together with additional stresses on water resources, which are expected in many parts of Africa as a result of increasing population pressures and global climate change - are changing attitudes towards large dams. The construction of smaller dams and the development of micro-hydropower facilities are being investigated as more sustainable means of supplying water and power.

Source:World Commission on Dams 2001

As shown in Figure 2e.3, the major user of freshwater resources is the agricultural sector, which accounted for 63 per cent of all withdrawals in Africa in 1995 (Shiklomanov 1999), and which irrigates more than 12 million hectares (ha) of farmland (FAOSTAT 2001). The more arid countries of northern and southern Africa are more dependent on irrigation than those in western and central Africa, however and, thus, securing water for irrigation is a high priority for economic development and stability. However, few countries can afford the financial investment in efficient irrigation systems, and water losses through leaking pipes and evaporation are as high as 50 per cent in South Africa alone (Global Water Partnership 2000). Notable exceptions are Mauritius and northern African countries, where drip irrigation systems are in place and faulty pipes are being replaced. With increasing population and consumption patterns, the demand for food is increasing across Africa, and freshwater withdrawals for agriculture are predicted to rise by more than 30 per cent over the next 20 years (Shiklomanov 1999).

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Figure 2e.3: Water use by sector in Africa 1990-2025

Source: Shiklomanov 1999

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Figure 2e.4: Water supply coverage in Africa in 2000

Source:WHO/UNICEF 2000

Compared to the agricultural sector, the domestic sector in Africa uses little water. However, domestic use has also increased over the past 30 years and is set to continue this trend (see Figure 2e.3). In 1950, the domestic sector was responsible for less than 3 per cent of all water withdrawals, but this had risen to 4.4 per cent by 1995, and is predicted to account for 6 per cent of all withdrawals by 2025 (Shiklomanov 1999). It is important to note, however, that only 62 per cent of the African population received piped water from municipal sources in 2000 (WHO/UNICEF 2000). Therefore, actual withdrawals for domestic consumption are higher than the estimated percentage from municipal withdrawals. Compared to domestic consumption in other regions of the world, Africa's domestic sector is a moderate user of water. For example, in Europe, the domestic sector accounts for 13 per cent of all withdrawals, more than twice that in Africa (Hinrichsen, Robey and Upadhyay 1997). Per capita usage in Africa (on average 47 litres/person/day) is also far below that of other countries (85 litres/person/day in Asia, 334 litres/person/day in the UK and 578 litres/person/day in the US) (Hinrichsen and others 1997).

There are large differences in access to water between countries, between urban and rural areas, and between population groups. Inadequate water supply and sanitation, particularly in the cramped living conditions of urban informal settlements, increases the risk of waterborne diseases and infections. Diarrhoeal infections are particularly prevalent amongst children, and constitute a major cause of preventable deaths.

Consumption of water consumption also varies, as well as access to water. Typically, the greater the access to water, the greater the consumption. By contrast, people who spend a large proportion of their day fetching and carrying water are most conservative with its use. A study in eastern Africa, for example, showed that urban dwellers use more water than rural households, and households with piped water use more than three times the amount of water used by households without piped water (IIED 2000). In South Africa, extreme disparities exist in water consumption between different population groups, with residents of urban informal settlements using less than 50 litres/person/day, and residents of middle-upper class suburbs consuming 750 litres/person/day-thirteen times more (Napier 2000). Losses from domestic water distribution systems also account for significant wastage, for example, up to 50 per cent of domestic consumption in the case of Mauritius (Government of Mauritius 1994).