Water is a key economic driver. Regardless of it’s source, access to water is important for survival, health and economic growth. In fact, SDG 6 “ Access to Water, sanitation and Hygiene” seeks to ensure humans, that is “us” meets their basic health and well-being. However, the water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa is looming. The region is extremely water-stressed, and meeting SDG 6 by 2030 seems to be a distant reality.

The rising water demand trends observed globally in recent years as a result of rapid population growth, rapid urbanisation, and competing water demand. However,  in addition to these factors, the sub-Saharan African water crisis is further fueled by rainfall deficit, prolonged droughts and devastating flood events that usually destroy water supply infrastructure and threaten water quality.

Where is sub-Saharan Africa?

Before diving deeper into the water crisis in the sub-Saharan region, let us first place the region on a map. A very interesting account of why the region was considered separate from north Africa exists. However, for the purpose of this article, the region includes all the countries south of the Sahara desert, as indicated by counties shaded in green.

water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa
Source: Wikipedia

Drivers of the water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa small cities

 1. Scarcity of water resources

The availability of freshwater is the primary goal for every community anywhere in the world. However, due to scarcity, freshwater is considered a precious resource in the sub-Saharan Africa region. Moreover, there are not many perennial rivers in the region, and few that exist attract different uses besides the required environmental flows. Therefore, the quest for fresh water has resulted in many regional and local conflicts.

Due to increased demand and poor surface water quality, several African cities that have relied heavily on surface water reservoirs are augmenting or intending to augment their water supplies with groundwater-fed systems.

As a result, many cities in sub-Saharan Africa depend on groundwater for various water uses ranging from domestic, industrial, irrigation and even in oil exploration fields. However, limited information is available to make groundwater visible to its users in this region due to limited monitoring. Therefore, small cities and major towns face escalated water challenges due to uninformed planning for water supply, irrigation capacity, sanitation requirements and infrastructure development.


Source: frontiersin.org

2. Rapid urbanisation: water demand and sanitation needs

According to the United Nations (UN) indicators for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, placing ourselves under SDG 6, just 21% of the population in Africa has access to sufficient sanitation facilities, and only 30% has access to a safely regulated drinking water supply.

Groundwater is becoming increasingly vital in Africa’s towns and cities. Africa is rapidly urbanising: the UN projects that by 2035, half of all Africans will live in urban areas. Already in 2017, an estimated 250 million people (40% of the total population) dwell in Sub-Saharan Africa’s metropolitan areas. This urban expansion is creating a significant increase in demand for water in metropolitan areas. However, the absence of adequate household and industrial waste treatment in many rapidly expanding urban regions is a major concern. Within Africa’s overall pattern of urbanisation, much of the growth is concentrated in towns and smaller urban centres rather than just large cities.

Low-income people account for the majority of the urban population increase. Both of these factors present additional challenges for water supply and sanitation in general and for developing and protecting groundwater resources in particular. Groundwater has a lot to offer in African cities: it’s a resource that city dwellers, planners, and managers can’t afford to ignore. However, in order to remain useful, groundwater must be protected from pollution and over-abstraction.

water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa
Source: Adelana, S. M. A. & MacDonald, A. M. (2008) Groundwater research issues in Africa. In: Applied Groundwater Studies in Africa. IAH Selected Papers on Hydrogeology, Volume 13 (ed. by S. M. A. Adelana & A. M. MacDonald). CRC. Press/Balkema, Leiden, The Netherlands.


3. Water contamination risks

Groundwater-fed water supplies, such as boreholes and wells, are at significant risk of contamination in many African cities. Many towns and cities lack effective sewerage networks or wastewater systems, and there are widespread unregulated sewage, industrial, and other solid and liquid waste disposals. Rapid urbanisation has resulted in the expansion of unimproved sanitation provision, primarily through the use of pit latrines, which are frequently little more than a hole in the ground and are frequently in close proximity to wells and springs used for residential water supply.

Large and small factories, leaking sewer pipes and even improved on-site sanitation systems such as septic tank soakaways contribute to groundwater pollution.

Because contaminants penetrate considerably faster into shallow groundwater, shallow groundwater is more vulnerable to pollution than deeper groundwater. As a result, groundwater from shallow sources, such as hand-dug wells, is more vulnerable. However, depending on the type and amount of pollution and the local hydrogeological conditions, deeper groundwater might also be at risk. So even well-constructed deep municipal or private boreholes can be damaged. An urban groundwater risk model illustrates how groundwater can become polluted through different sources and pathways.

4. Climate variability

Rainfall and temperature are the major determinants of climate variability. Significant increases or decreases in these parameters can cause long-term changes in groundwater systems. For example, while rainfall and flood events may contribute substantial recharge to aquifers, temperature projections showing increasing trends can cause significant evaporation, especially in arid regions, leading to declining water levels and high groundwater salinity, demonstrating impacts on water quality and quantity.

As COP 26 puts it:

“The climate crisis is a water crisis.”

The impacts of climate variability are more significant in the sub-Saharan Africa region, resulting in an unexpected water crisis.

What happens if the water crisis is unresolved in sub-Saharan Africa?

Well, there are many impacts of water scarcity, but the most dominant across the region are increased poverty levels and food insecurity.

1. Increased poverty  levels

Water scarcity causes may change in different parts of the world due to differences in meteorological conditions and socio-cultural realities. However, water scarcity, in general, can be a limiting factor in poverty reduction and is related to detrimental effects on population health.

This article first mentioned that water is key to economic development. Therefore, convenient access to water that is of good quality is important for stimulating economic growth. When one doesn’t have to think about where to get water for his/her self or for the entire household is more likely to engage in other activities for either self-development or of economic value.

However, several studies have shown that the majority of women and children in the sub-Saharan region suffer the most consequences of water burden. This is mainly because women and children are tasked with collecting water for household needs. However, millions travel long distances in search of water.

This means few children turn up in school, if not on alternating days. At the same time, women focus on water needs rather than engaging in economic activities. As a result, women are better household planners in modern society. However, the quest for water has denied women in the south of the Sahara opportunities for self-realisation.

2. Food insecurity

Water scarcity fuels food insecurity. This statement is true, especially in arid and semi-arid regions where irrigation is a primary pathway to food production. Prolonged droughts make agriculture unsuitable, and rationing of already limited water resources to satisfy domestic water needs implies limited agricultural activities. Thus, insufficient food supply triggers hunger disasters in the region.

How can knowledge of groundwater resources be improved?

The sensible and sustainable use of this resource can only address the growing number of regional water shortages and crises. Such long-term use necessitates comprehension, knowledge, and careful planning and management. Nonetheless, knowledge of this underground resource is still scarce in many areas.

In fact, reliable evaluations of groundwater resources, which are necessary to supply Africa’s rapidly rising populations in the face of climate change, place enormous demands on the science of hydrogeology. Moreover, in many African countries, a lack of national awareness of groundwater resources impedes development and the regulated use of this resource. Effective management of Africa’s groundwater resources is thus complex, necessitating the establishment of a dependable groundwater monitoring network.

The resulting products provide information on the amount, quality, and susceptibility of the region’s groundwater resources and aid in communicating groundwater issues to water specialists, decision-makers, and the general public. An example of such progress is the BGR’s WHYMAPS, which summarises global groundwater information. Similar approaches in local contexts will further improve the solutions towards the water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.