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June 26, 2022
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Africa’s water scarcity a threat to its pursuit for climate stability

Access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation continues to elude a large swathe of Africa

Africa’s quest for inclusive growth, climate resilience and stability is in jeopardy amid fragile water security in the continent, says a United Nations report issued on Monday.

The report titled Water Security in Africa: A preliminary Assessment, was launched in Nairobi, ahead of World Water Day, which fell on Tuesday, March 22.

Access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation eludes a large swathe of the continent’s population, said the report compiled by the Canada-based UN University Institute for Water Environment and Health.

“Levels of water security in Africa overall are unacceptably low. Not a single country or sub-region has yet achieved the highest level of the model or even the reasonably high effective stages of national water security,” the report said.

The report, which covers 54 African countries, evaluated 10 indicators to conclude that about 500 million people spread across 19 countries in the continent are water-stressed.

Subsurface reserves

According to the report, only 13 out of the 54 countries have achieved some modest level of water security in the last five years, while one-third are deemed to have water security below the global threshold of 45 percent.

So far, 29 countries have made some progress toward meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 on universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation in the last three to five years, but 25 have made none, the report said.

In addition, water quality deterioration is a major health threat facing communities, with 115 people succumbing hourly to ailments linked to contaminated water, poor sanitation and hygiene.

Experts called for innovative financing, policy reforms and equitable sharing of the commodity.

However, a new analysis by the British Geological Survey and WaterAid, says there is enough groundwater in Africa to provide everyone with enough drinking water to face five years of drought, or in some cases up to 50 years.

After a ten-year survey, they found that throughout Africa there are enough subsurface water reserves to serve the entire population.

Even in parched locations, says chief researcher Alan MacDonald, there is adequate groundwater.

“When you realise the groundwater resources are maybe 20 times the amount of water we have in the rivers and lakes of Africa, it’s a really amazing fact but because it’s hidden it’s so often out of sight and out of mind,” said MacDonald.

This applies to Turkana, Kenya, one of Africa’s driest regions, where camel caravans trek between the scarce water sources. It is one of the worst affected places on the continent, according to the Famine Early Warning System. Turkana’s water minister, Vincent Palor, confirms the situation is dire.

“The water sources are drying up because the water table has gone down. The body condition of the livestock is poor,” said Palor. “When we also look at the vegetation cover, the vegetation cover is not pleasant because it’s drying up.”

But even in Turkana, there appears to be water just beneath the feet of the camel herders. According to a 2013 report Turkana has enough groundwater to service Kenya for 70 years. However, a government survey has shown the water is too salty.

Virginia Newton-Lewis, a senior policy analyst at WaterAid, explained that investments are needed to get usable water.

“We need mapping, we need monitoring,” said Newton-Lewis. “This takes investments, this takes investments in also equipment. It takes investments in human resources to do that. And then we need investments in the way we get the water that we find to the people that need it the most.”

BGS researcher Alan MacDonald added that the report is timely since groundwater is crucial amid droughts caused by climate change.

“As droughts are becoming more common, then people are looking for a much more reliable source of water, which is why I think there is an increased interest in groundwater resources because they are much more reliable than rainwater or river water or even reservoirs,” said MacDonald.

Turkana’s Minister Vincent Palor is pleased with the renewed focus on groundwater exploration, as he is concerned that continuing water shortages may exacerbate the situation.

“If the water stress continues this means there will be a scramble for water, and this may force these pastoralists to move to neighboring countries, and then at times contributing to conflict,” said Mr Palor.

There is however respite for Turkana and Africa since another recent survey by BGS suggests that 80 percent of the subterranean water is likely to be acceptable for drinking.

Egypt, Botswana, Gabon, Mauritius and Tunisia are the top five most water-secure countries in Africa at present, while Somalia, Chad and Niger are the most water-stressed.

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