The problem of water scarcity has cast a shadow over the wellbeing of humans. According to estimates, in 2016, nearly 4 billion people – equivalent to two-thirds of the global population – experience severe water scarcity for a prolonged period of time. If the situation doesn’t improve, 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030. Africa, in particular, is facing severe water scarcity and the situation is worsening day by day. Resolute and substantial action is needed to address the issue.

Water Scarcity in Africa: An Overview

Water scarcity is the condition where the demand for water exceeds supply and where available water resources are approaching or have exceeded sustainable limits. 

The problem of water scarcity in Africa is not only a pressing one but it is also getting worse day by day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), water scarcity affects 1 in 3 people in the African Region and the situation is deteriorating because of factors such as population growth and urbanisation but also climate change.

Water scarcity can be classified into two types: physical and economic. Physical water scarcity occurs when water resources are overexploited for different uses and no longer meet the needs of the population. In this case, there is not enough water available in physical terms. Economic water scarcity, on the other hand, is linked to poor governance, poor infrastructure, and limited investments. The latter type of water scarcity can exist even in countries or areas where water resources and infrastructure are adequate. 

As reported by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in 2011, arid regions of the continent – mainly located in North Africa – experience frequent physical water scarcity, while Sub-Saharan Africa undergoes mainly economic water scarcity. Indeed, the latter region has a decent levels of physical water, mainly thanks to the abundant, though highly seasonal and unevenly distributed supply of rainwater. This region’s access to water, however, is constrained due to poor infrastructure, resulting in mainly economic rather than physical water scarcity.

water scarcity in Africa

Figure 1: Map of physical and economic water scarcity at basin level in 2007 across the African continent.

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In a 2022 study conducted on behalf of the United Nations University Institute for Water Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), researchers employed indicators to quantify water security in all of Africa’s countries. They found that only 13 out of 54 countries reached a modest level of water security in recent years, with Egypt, Botswana, Gabon, Mauritius and Tunisia representing the better-off countries in Africa in terms of water security. 

19 countries – which are home to half a billion people – are deemed to have levels of water security below the threshold of 45 on a scale of 1 to 100. On the other hand, Somalia, Chad, and Niger are the continent’s least water-secure countries.

Egypt performs the best regarding access to drinking water while the Central African Republic performs the worst. The latter, however, has the highest per capita water availability while half of North African countries are characterised by absolute water scarcity. This again shows that Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Africa face economic water scarcity more than physical water scarcity. 

Causes of Water Scarcity in Africa

Human activities, which result in overexploitation and global warming, are the main culprit for the water scarcity in Africa. Overexploitation is the main contributor to physical water scarcity. A 2018 report published by the Institute for Security Studies stated that more than 60% of South Africa’s rivers are being overexploited and only one-third of the country’s main rivers are in good condition. Lake Chad – once deemed Africa’s largest freshwater body and important freshwater reservoir – is shrinking because of overexploitation of its water. According to a 2019 report, for this reason alone, the water body of the lake has diminished by 90% since the 1960s, with the surface area of the lake decreasing from 26,000 square kilometres in 1963 to less than 1,500 square kilometres in 2018. 

water scarcity in Africa

Figure 2: The size of Lake Chad shows a massive shrinking between 1972 and 2007.

The underlying cause for overexploitation can be further broken down to the increase in water demand, driven by the rise in population growth and rate of urbanisation. 

Population in Sub-Saharan Africa is growing at a rate of 2.7% a year in 2020, more than twice that of South Asia (1.2%) and Latin America (0.9%). Meanwhile, the population of Nigeria – a country in West Africa – is forecasted to double by 2050. As for the rate of urbanisation, according to the United Nations, 21 out of the 30 fastest-growing cities in the world in 2018 are deemed to be in Africa. Cities such as Bamako in Mali and Yaounde in Cameroon have experience explosive growth. 

The booming population will inevitably lead to more food demand, a faster rate of urbanisation and an rise in industrial activities, all of which require abundant water supply.

Climate change and global warming – mainly caused by an increase in human and commercial activities – equally contribute to water scarcity in Africa. As a report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa found, a 1C rise in global temperatures would result in a reduction of runoff  – excess rainwater that flows across the land’s surface – by up to 10%. Another study stated that the declining trends of rainfall caused by global warming will continue in North Africa, limiting groundwater recharge and exacerbating groundwater depletion. Although in areas closer to the equator, a soar in precipitation will likely occur as a result of global warming, the increased potential evapotranspiration  – the combined loss of water through the plant’s process of transpiration and evaporation of water from the earth’s surface – and drought risks in the majority of the continent still outweigh the increased rainfall in these areas. 

Consequences of Water Scarcity in Africa

Water scarcity is expected to affect the economic condition, the health of citizens as well as ecosystems in Africa. 

In economic terms, the agriculture sector is likely to be hampered under severe water scarcity. Agriculture is one of the most pivotal economic sectors for Africa, employing the majority of the population. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, it accounts for nearly 14% of the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As the sector that relies on water the most, agriculture is already heavily impacted by water scarcity and the situation is expected to further deteriorate, leading to other issues such as food shortages and, in the worst cases, famine.

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Not surprisingly, water shortage is an immense threat to human’s health. In times of water scarcity, people are often forced to get their water supply from contaminated ponds and streams. When ingested, polluted water results in widespread diarrhoeal diseases including cholera, typhoid fever, salmonellosis, other gastrointestinal viruses, and dysentery. Quality of healthcare services in many African countries is low, with only 48% African people having access to healthcare. The poor system has made diarrhoeal diseases life-threatening and in many cases even fatal. 

A study published in 2021 found that severe diarrheal disease accounts for about 600,000 deaths each year in sub-Saharan Africa, with the majority being children and elderly. Diarrheal disease is the third-leading cause of disease and death among African children under the age of five, a situation that public health authorities blame on poor quality of water and sanitation. 

Lastly, water shortages jeopardise ecosystems and contribute to a loss in biodiversity. Africa is home to some of the most unique freshwater ecosystems in the world. Lake Turkana is the world’s largest desert lake, while Lake Malawi hosts the richest freshwater fish fauna in the world, home to a staggering 14% of the world’s freshwater fish species. If not tackled, water scarcity will disrupt and likely terminate freshwater and marine ecosystems in the continent. 

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Solutions to Water Scarcity in Africa

Remedies for water scarcity are observed on a local, national, and international scale. 

Local communities are taking adaptation action. Many opt for drought-tolerant crops instead of crops that require large amounts of water, a strategy to mitigate both water scarcity and food insecurity. Conservation or regenerative agriculture is also introduced to help infiltration and soil moisture retention through mulching and no-tillage approaches. Countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Ethiopia have all adopted such techniques in recent years.

Several governments are also taking steps to tackle water scarcity across the continent. For example, the government of Namibia financed the construction of a urban wastewater management in the capital Windhoek, significantly improving the management of water resources and thus lowering the risk of water scarcity. 

International organisations also lend a helping hand in times of water scarcity. In recent years, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) promoted several initiatives and implemented innovative financing model to alleviate this pressing issue. In regions in eastern and southern Africa, UNICEF is cooperating with the European Investment Bank (EIB), the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) and other international agencies and organisations to evaluate and implement bankable projects in a blended financing mode, particularly targeting the urban areas. For example, the European Union donated 19 million for the construction of water supply systems in the Eswatini’s cities of Siphofaneni, Somntongo, and Matsanjeni. Similarly, the DBSA contributed about 150 million to the construction of the Lomahasha Water Supply. Booster pumping stations as well as reinforced concrete reservoirs are also constructed with the support of international actors.

Conclusion

All in all, the water scarcity problem in Africa is likely to exacerbate under the ever-increasing water demand and rise in global temperatures. Tangible action from all parties is constantly required to tackle this massive problem. Individuals can equally play an important role in alleviating water scarcity in Africa by adopting a more environmental-friendly lifestyle and taking actions in their daily lives to mitigate the effect of climate change and they can develop mindful practises that help safe water, one of the most important resources for life on Earth.

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