Confronting Africa’s water challenge

Could better wastewater management help Africa deal with its worst drought since 1945? African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina says it can address scarcity, as well as create jobs and sustainable growth.

Water is essential for life, and yet it is scarce in many parts of the world. Owing to the effects of climate change, Africa is experiencing its worst drought since 1945, especially in Southern Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Northern Nigeria.

These fragile areas now need the global community’s support. We need to build resilient systems to ensure access to potable water for all people, and to improve water-delivery and sanitation provisions in Africa’s rapidly growing urban areas.

We should begin by expanding Africans’ capacity to harness wastewater. With investment and proper management, wastewater can become a sustainable source of wealth for many Africans, with added benefits for human health, agricultural productivity, and environmental sustainability.

Over the past six years, the African Development Bank has invested $3.3 billion in projects to expand access to water and improve sanitation, with around $2.2 billion of that going to urban services that reach at least 17 million people.

The AfDB supports an integrated urban water-management model (IUWM) that, in keeping with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6, enables communities to derive a sustainable income from management of urban liquid and solid waste.

IUWM efforts require a significant initial investment, and come with steep capital and operational costs. Only a few African cities collect and treat any more than 20 per cent of the wastewater generated through centralized wastewater-management systems.

The remaining 80 per cent constitutes a huge untapped source of potentially valuable liquid and solid waste. With the right investment, foresight, and commitment, this underappreciated resource can create jobs and deliver sustainable growth.

Wastewater management is thus a central feature of the AfDB’s strategic priorities, known as the High 5s, which aim to improve Africans’ quality of life, boost public health, achieve gender equality, create jobs, and increase communities’ resilience to the effects of climate change. Water will also play a key role in reaching the High 5s’ industrialization and sustainable-farming objectives.

With investment and proper management, wastewater can become a sustainable source of wealth for many Africans, with added benefits for human health, agricultural productivity, and environmental sustainability.

In Yaoundé, Cameroon, the AfDB helped to protect some 300,000 people and their property by reducing the frequency of floods from 15 incidents per year to just three. And with a $40 million sanitation project, the AfDB helped to lower the proportion of the city’s malaria-afflicted population from 16 per cent to 12 per cent.

In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, the $23 million AfDB-funded Gourou Basin Integrated Watershed Management Project significantly reduced flooding throughout the Gourou Basin, and improved 2.8 million inhabitants’ livelihoods.

In Zimbabwe, after 4,300 people died in the 2008-2009 cholera pandemic, the AfDB and other donors supported the $43.6 million Urgent Water Supply and Sanitation Rehabilitation Project, which made emergency repairs to wastewater systems in urban areas, helping 2.5 million people.

All AfDB-supported wastewater-management systems follow sustainability strategies to ensure that they enhance economic gains, benefit local communities, and remain affordable. These projects also help countries to harness and use waste flows, by converting sewage to biogas and fertilizer.

Meanwhile, the AfDB’s African Water Facility (AWF) complements its project-finance work by attracting downstream investments in water infrastructure. In February, flooding and strong winds from Tropical Storm Dineo devastated the coast of Mozambique and had a severe impact on the local population.

But just a few weeks later, the AWF launched a feasibility study to improve livelihoods and climate-change resilience throughout Mozambique’s Inhambane Province, where the storm struck.

In collaboration with the Global Water Partnership, the AWF is implementing IUWM systems in five African cities, including Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Marondera in Zimbabwe. In the DRC alone, IUWM systems can be expected to improve water delivery and sanitation for 17 million people by 2030.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also tapping into the AfDB’s expertise, by providing an $18 million grant to fund Phase II of the AfDB’s Urban Sanitation Program. This effort will help to develop business innovations for affordable and sustainable sanitation services in Africa, which could reach two million urban dwellers directly and another six million people through subsidiary projects.

Africa’s wastewater-management challenges are substantial and complex. But the AfDB is determined to provide opportunities that pay dividends for African communities – in public health, improved sanitation, economic development, and environmental protection.

Improving the quality of life for all Africans will require political commitment, public-private partnerships, and robust public involvement. With the High 5s framework, the AfDB is working to bring these three ingredients together.

All stakeholders – in Africa and internationally – must redouble our efforts to ensure clean, affordable water for all, and to support African countries suffering through a historic drought. We have a moral obligation to do so. After all, water means life.

Akinwumi Adesina is President of the African Development Bank.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2017

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