Africa Remains Hamstrung in Battle for Water and Sanitation

by Inter Press Service | Inter Press Service
Thursday, 25 August 2011 09:28 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Thalif Deen STOCKHOLM, Aug 25 (IPS) - The statistics coming out of Africa are staggering: 40 percent of Africa�s 1 billion people live in urban areas an 60 percent live in slums, where water supplies and sanitation are "severely inadequate", according to the Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).The worst affected are countries in sub-Saharan Africa where shortage of financial resources, bureaucratic mismanagement and lack of political leadership are hampering progress towards resolving longstanding problems relating to water scarcities and lack of sanitation facilities. The London-based WaterAid points out that at least five African countries - Angola, Comoros, Zimbabwe, Liberia and Togo - have no specific public sector budget-line for sanitation. Comoros and Angola, along with Timor-Leste, are three of the world's lowest scoring countries for sanitation. Asked what factors are hindering Africa's progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on water and sanitation, Nelson Gomonda, Pan-Africa programme manager at WaterAid, told IPS that financing for the water and sanitation sector remains one of the greatest challenges. In their "high-level commitment' made during the Africa Sanitation conference of 2008, countries in Africa committed to allocate at least 0.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to sanitation in their national budgets, but most countries' allocation has not exceeded 0.3 percent of their GDP. "In simple terms, the water and sanitation sector is not attracting the funding that it requires from finance ministries. This could also be traced to poor appreciation about the link between water and sanitation issues and wider human development," he said. The United Nations estimates currently over 800 million people worldwide do not have access to safe water, and more than 2.4 billion lack toilet facilities: factors that have triggered diarrhoeal diseases that kill an estimated 4,000 children every day. The MDGs call on developing nations not only to reduce by 50 percent the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger but also those without access to water and sanitation. The targeted deadline is 2015. But at the current rate of investment progress, about a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and also in Asia will miss the MDG targets on sanitation alone, UNEP said, in a report titled ‘Towards a Green Economy', released here. According to the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), water is also a dominating political factor in the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, particularly along nomadic migratory routes. "A revolution in Egypt, and the splitting of Sudan into two independent states in the north and the south, gives the Nile basin a new and untested hydro-political balance that is yet to stabilise and take form," warns SIWI. "What are the different scenarios for future cooperation along the Nile? And how will different interests play in the newly-created nation state of South Sudan, as it braces itself for agricultural export riches, and attractive offers from north and south riparian countries alike to join either bloc in negotiating Nile water allocation agreements?" The African Regional Centre for Water, an inter-governmental body based in Burkina Faso, believes that real expansion of access to water and sanitation implies sustainability of services over time. "At this level, sustainability cannot be obtained without local ownership by the beneficiaries. Local ownership means local knowledge of how to build, operate and maintain systems, and learning how to work together." Gomonda of WaterAid told IPS that at the local government level, the water and sanitation sector is faced with serious human resource gaps, with a vacancy rate as high as 66 percent in such some countries like Malawi and Zambia. He pointed out that poor coordination amongst ministries involved in water and sanitation issues is another major challenge. While everyone recognises that water is life and that sanitation is key to good health, with 4,000 children dying daily due to poor water and inadequate sanitation, there is inadequate coordination among key players and actors, he said. As a result, countries do not have clear water and sanitation investment plans to attract funding. He also said that all these issues of inadequate financing and coordination could also be blamed on poor political leadership. For water and sanitation to be given the priority that they deserve, there is need for the political leadership to champion issues of water and ensure that they are given the required priority within national development frameworks. "But in most African countries, the issue of water and sanitation is not given much within poverty reduction strategy papers," he noted. The Africa Working Group at the European Union's Water Initiative (EUWI) says despite increased aid commitments from European countries, water and sanitation "remain dramatically underfunded across Africa." Africa receives about 60 percent of all EU aid in the water sector, and total annual aid disbursements to African states for improved water supply have nearly doubled: from 500 million to 950 million dollars between 2005-2009. This accounts for 59 percent of all development aid for water supply, sanitation and hygiene in sub-Saharan Africa, according to EUWI. But the African Working Group complains of the "uneven distribution" of aid between recipient countries, citing that 18 countries received aid from at least six EU countries, while eight received aid only from two donors. "It is also noted that aid has become increasingly fragmented, with increased numbers of smaller disbursements that can lead to more administration and less performance on the ground," says a press statement released here. Still, all is not lost. According to the World Bank, African countries that transition to taking a leadership role in safe water and sanitation services have an unprecedented opportunity to drastically reduce the number of people without access to safe water and sanitation. In a report released here, the Bank said economic growth, debt relief and increasing political stability have opened up new opportunities for many African countries to take charge of their water supply and sanitation sectors and develop sustainable service delivery pathways. "Stable countries have outperformed the fragile ones by making greater increases in water supply coverage and in reducing open defecation in rural areas more markedly," according to Dominick de Waal, the author of the report and a senior financial specialist at the World Bank. Find out more about the forces behind climate change - but also about the growing citizen awareness and new climate policies towards sustainable development