AFRICA: drinking water at the heart of rural development

The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 calls for universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2030. But in Africa, progress is still slow. In a 2019 report, the UN said access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa is only 24% and basic sanitation services cover only 28% of an estimated population of over 1.2 billion people.

With 17 major rivers and 160 lakes irrigating it, the African continent has abundant renewable water resources estimated at more than 5,400 billion m3 per year. However, African countries still have a long way to go and the lack of drinking water infrastructure has a particular impact on rural populations. Faced with the resurgence of waterborne diseases and the need for development to counter the rural exodus, it is becoming imperative to work on solutions adapted to each context, in particular by creating new financing models. The realities are different depending on the sub-region concerned and the climate.

Unequal distribution of water resources in Africa

Africa has several ecosystems more or less favorable to the abundance of water resources. In the arid and semi-arid ecosystems of North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, the low rate of access to drinking water is attributed to the scarcity of the resource. Because these parts of the African continent have to face water stress, further accentuated by climate change.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 14 African countries are already suffering from water scarcity, and it is estimated that 11 other countries will suffer the same fate by 2025. According to the organization, nearly 51% of the sub-Saharan population, that is 300 million people, do not have access to quality water and 41% do not have decent sanitation.

On the other hand, the ecosystems of equatorial and tropical Africa are rather well endowed with water resources. These regions have a large number of rivers and lakes. However, the development of these resources requires the establishment of infrastructures to exploit them.

Rural Water Supply Solutions

In rural areas of Africa, particularly south of the Sahara, the authorities in charge of water management rely more on drinking water supply systems (AEPA) to supply the population. These systems are also used in secondary cities and are installed in densely populated villages. A WSS consists of a smaller water intake from a river or a borehole in the water table, a treatment plant and a tower that supplies the population with water via standpipes or household connections.

In addition to these mini water distribution networks, human-powered pumps are used in some localities. They provide water to the population through a well. But in some African countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire, these installations are gradually being replaced by solar-powered pumping systems.

The use of modular systems

Modular systems are becoming increasingly important in rural water management. These solutions, very often prefabricated and containerized, allow the rapid implementation of drinking water projects in rural areas. Like the Degrémont Compact Units (CDU), manufactured by the French group Suez, these modular solutions make it possible to treat both surface water and water pumped from groundwater. In recent years, drinking water supply projects using decentralized solutions have been deployed in West Africa, mainly in Mali and Côte d’Ivoire as part of the ambitious “Water for All” Program.

Water desalination

Containerized water desalination systems are also used in rural areas in Africa, especially in some coastal countries suffering from freshwater scarcity. These systems can treat both seawater and brackish water. Often criticized for their energy-intensive nature, the promoters of these desalination solutions, mostly start-ups, are now relying on renewable energies to supply their drinking water production facilities.

Residents of Motongwe learn about the Boreal Light water desalination system © GreenTech Capital

These solutions are mainly deployed in East Africa, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. One of the most prominent start-ups in this segment is undoubtedly the German company Boreal Light, which partners with local players, including non-profit organizations. In recent months, the company, led by Hamed Beheshti, has multiplied its projects in rural areas, mainly in health establishments, in a context marked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The issue of maintaining hydraulic structures in rural areas

One of the recurring problems related to rural water supply is the maintenance of existing installations. A borehole equipped with a human-powered pump that breaks down condemns an entire village to travel several kilometers to obtain water. In several African countries, the management of water points or standpipes is entrusted to local authorities. But the effectiveness of this solution is limited by the lack of means and expertise necessary for the proper management of drinking water structures.

In 2010, the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), a multi-donor partnership, part of the Global Water Management Support of the World Bank Group, published the results of a study on the management of water supply works in rural areas in Rwanda, Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria. The report reveals the difficulties of community management of drinking water supply, in particular because of the costs involved. Moreover, most water supply systems still use diesel generators, especially in villages not yet served by a stable electricity grid.

Apart from the problem of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, this equipment requires constant maintenance. Even if the local committees are already struggling to ensure the optimal management of the facilities with their low purchasing power. In addition, there is a lack of technical knowledge about drinking water production facilities. Faced with these difficulties, the WSP recommended delegating the management of drinking water production facilities. The management of equipment can thus be entrusted to companies, despite a certain mistrust of the private sector with regard to the management of a basic common good.

Ivory Coast: a textbook case?

For its part, Côte d’Ivoire has recently chosen to create a public entity to meet the challenge of water management in rural areas. Announced on January 24, 2022, the National Rural Water Agency of Côte d’Ivoire (Anahr_CI) will be responsible for guaranteeing the continuity of drinking water services in rural areas, at a time when the Ivorian government aims universal access to drinking water by 2030, including in rural areas.

Anahr_CI should also allow the Ivorian State to make savings on the management of drinking water works in rural areas. According to the Ivorian Ministry of Hydraulics, the government spends an average of 4 billion CFA francs (more than 6 million euros) a year to cover the cost of repairing human-powered pumps. According to government forecasts, the new agency will save 80% of this budget.

What funding model for rural water supply?

Rural water financing remains the cornerstone of universal access to drinking water in Africa. Unlike electricity access works, which attract investments from public and private financial institutions, the water and sanitation sector is still struggling to find investors. However, according to a study published in 2020 by the University of Oxford (in the United Kingdom), 8 billion dollars were invested between 2006 and 2015 for the construction of a million boreholes equipped with human-powered pumps in 50 African countries.

Over this period, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is the main financial partner with 1.7 billion invested. For researchers at the University of Oxford, the problem lies mainly in management, which does not promote the sustainability of the facilities. Faced with this situation, researchers Patrick Thomson, Johanna Koehler and Tim Foster are proposing ways to resolve these difficulties, in particular the networking of drinking water production facilities for better management or the design of a financing model based on performance at national and regional levels.

Jean-Marie Takouleu

About Keneth T. Graves

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