Graffiti on the streets of Durban, highlight water as a human right.

The theme for this year’s World Water Day is “Water for Peace”, a call to end disputes and violence relating to water. Attaining peace means ensuring equal access to safe and clean water for all as recognised by Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

To understand the indispensable role water plays in our world,  it is important to consider that accomplishing several other SDGs, such as zero hunger, poverty eradication, good health and well-being, and affordable and clean energy, depends on the achievement of Goal 6. 

Unfortunately, this dream feels out of reach for numerous Africans, who are burdened with water scarcity. According to statistics, 5.52 billion people out of a population of 7.78 billion in 186 countries face water insecurity today. Of these, 1.34 billion are Africans, accounting for more than 90% of the continent’s population. 

This water crisis has persisted due to various influences including climate change, water pollution, deforestation, poor water management, limited water resources, and conflict. 

As things stand, African countries must address these issues to create peaceful societies and unlock sustainable development as realised by Goal 16 of the SDGs. 

Here is everything you need to know about the water crisis in Africa:

  1. Africa is the second-driest continent globally, behind Australia.

Roughly two-thirds of Africa is categorised as arid or semi-arid, despite the continent possessing close to 9% of global freshwater resources. This is primarily because of the uneven distribution of these resources as 54% of the continent’s supply is held by only six countries while 27 of the countries facing severe water poverty share only 7%.  As a result, more than half of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to safe drinking water and an estimated 160 million people across the continent live under water scarcity conditions

  1. The water emergency in Africa is largely climate-induced. 

Climate change is undoubtedly the primary cause of water insecurity in Africa. Unpredictable weather patterns and intense weather events have left several communities grappling with water scarcity in African states, including South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The persistent drought in the Horn of Africa is an example of how climate change triggers water insecurity. 

Among the impacts of below-average rainfall for prolonged periods is the drying up of an estimated 90% of water boreholes in countries in the region. In Kenya, approximately 95% of water sources in Turkana and Marsabit dried up, leading to the emergence of unregulated water markets, with vendors selling poor quality water and hiking prices at will.

Floods fueled by extreme rainfall also pose a threat to water supply by risking infrastructural damage, increasing pollution of water sources, and damaging drainage systems. For instance, the lack of climate-proofed water systems in countries like Ethiopia increase their vulnerability to floods. Others like Kenya experience increased risk of mudslides and landslides and rising sea levels during floods, resulting in water contamination.  

Consequently, numerous communities across the continent are now dependent on unreliable emergency water trucks and contaminated wells for survival despite the potential health risks.  

  1. Water pollution fuels freshwater scarcity. 
Plastic bottle floating along the coast of Wadi El Gamal national park, Marsa Alam, Egypt.

Water pollution is another grave challenge affecting Africa’s water security. Water systems become polluted in many ways, such as when plastics, industrial waste or untreated sewage drain into water systems, fertilisers and pesticides are flushed into waterways during heavy rains, or due to fossil fuel extraction. 

A prime example is South Africa, where coal plants heavily rely on water for many uses, including extraction, preparation, incineration, dust control, and disposal of by-products. The coal particles and other remnants from these processes end up in waterways, contaminating them and making the water unsafe for consumption.  

Kenya’s Nairobi River best illustrates water pollution in that country. At one time, this river was a vibrant and important artery in the country’s capital. But that was before industrial activity and human settlement became a catalyst for pollution, which has only increased over the years. Now the waterway carries everything from untreated sewage to agricultural runoff, plastics making its water unsafe for human or animal consumption.

Overdependence on pesticides and fertilisers for food production across the continent further contributes to water pollution as more often than not, these chemicals end up in water systems, impacting water security.  

  1. Deforestation disrupts the role of forests as natural water regulators, causing water scarcity. 
Dwindling water supplies at Theewaterskloof Dam, an earth-fill type dam located on the Sonderend River near Villiersdorp, Western Cape, South Africa, around 100km east of Cape Town.

Forest ecosystems are natural water regulators. It is no wonder the International Day of Forests and World Water Day are only a day apart. Among the ways forests regulate the water cycle is by preventing water pollution. Their strong roots prevent soil erosion while substances on the forest floor facilitate sediment and nutrient absorption. The loss of forests alters this balance causing sediments to flow into waterways and clog them, resulting in water pollution and subsequently, water shortage. 

Forest canopies are also essential to water regulation as they control rainfall by storing and releasing water vapour through evaporation and precipitation. These resources also minimise flooding impacts by reducing or blocking the runoff. Deforestation reduces their capacity to achieve these functions, leading to erratic rainfall patterns, and increased floods and droughts. 

In Kenya, the encroachment of major water towers has triggered water insecurity in the country by increasing siltation, soil erosion, flash floods, and surface runoff, while also reducing water infiltration.

More distressing are the cascading consequences of tree loss, impacting areas beyond the borders of deforested regions. To put this into context, the widespread deforestation in Central Africa is predicted to reduce rainfall in the US Midwest by up to 35%, affecting global food and water supply.  

  1. Water scarcity threatens our health and wellbeing.

Water shortage is associated with increased morbidity and mortality rates among vulnerable groups. For one, limited access to safe drinking water exposes populations to various waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. 

Patients and staff in healthcare facilities are also subjected to additional risks of illnesses and infections due to inadequate access to water and the poor sanitation this problem triggers. Statistically, about 842,000 people die each year from diarrhoea caused by contaminated drinking water. 

Another way the water crisis threatens our wellbeing is through food insecurity. Agricultural production in many African countries is rain-fed. More specifically, 95% of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa relies on adequate rainfall. Accordingly, fluctuating rainfall causes crops to dry up, affecting food supply and jeopardising the lives of 41% of the population in the region who live in drought-prone areas. Food insecurity disproportionately affects vulnerable groups and can lead to malnutrition or weakened immune systems, increasing the risk of serious illness and death. 

  1. Water insecurity is killing livestock.
As part of Greenpeace’s campaigns aiming to shed light on the effects of climate change in the MENA, Greenpeace visited and witnessed the climate change impact in one of the Moroccan oases – Mahamid ElGhezlan. Greenpeace released a documentary titled “We protect Moroccan oases”, in which we called for their protection.

Water insecurity is detrimental to the survival of livestock as it causes dehydration and weakened immunity. Younger animals and lactating or pregnant livestock are at a greater risk of dying from dehydration. Water loss accompanied by the loss of food during periods of drought also impacts the survival of livestock. This is because these animals develop weak immunities, increasing their susceptibility to illness and death. These devastating repercussions of water scarcity have been witnessed in countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

  1. The water crisis escalates conflict and leads to population displacement.

Displacement due to the water crisis has become a common occurrence across African communities. Limited water supply due to both drought and floods has come at a cost to low income households as they are forced to leave their homes in search of water sources. Some households whose livelihoods rely on water availability are also driven from their homes in pursuit of sustainable livelihoods. 

Water shortage also aggravates conflict across African regions. This is especially the case when communities have to share scarce water resources as they often clash with respect to ownership and use of the resources, with some of these disputes turning violent. 

In the case of Sudan’s Darfur region, farmers and nomadic herders lived peacefully, sharing land and wells. That was before the recurring drought struck. When the rains stopped, farmers fenced their land to safeguard it from ruin by herds. This caused disputes and the resulting food and water shortages intensified existing problems, triggering conflict in the region. 

Other regions where water scarcity has intensified disputes include the Central African Republic (CAR) and the eastern provinces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

  1. Water shortage in Africa disproportionately affects underserved populations. 

Many countries in Africa that are affected by the water crisis are home to a large percentage of underserved populations. These populations include individuals living in informal settlements, rural areas, Indigenous People, differently abled persons, refugees and displaced persons, and minority ethnic groups. These individuals often struggle to access safe drinking water and basic sanitation services, making them more prone to challenges like increased poverty levels, heightened morbidity and mortality rates, and social inequities. 

For example, Somalia is among the countries experiencing the severe impacts of the water crisis due to prolonged droughts and unforeseen floods that decrease their groundwater supply. Consequently, 69% of its population who live below the poverty line are at-risk of not accessing water due to high retail prices and potential conflict over the scarce resource. 

  1. Water scarcity diminishes the quality of life and continues the cycle of poverty. 
A donkey is the mode of transport for fetching water from the dam for Ikombe residents. Farmers in Kenya are effectively applying ecological farming practices that are increasing their ability to build resilience to and cope with climate change.

Water is a source of livelihood for many communities in Africa who indulge in farming, fishing, and livestock rearing, among other activities. Unfortunately, the water crisis in Africa threatens these livelihoods and has caused many to lose their source of income, diminishing their quality of life and entrenching them in poverty. For instance, scarce water limits agricultural productivity as farmers lack adequate water to irrigate their crops. This limits their capacity to make enough profit to advance economically, trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty. 

In addition, water shortage comes at a cost for girls and women in rural areas as they are often tasked with collecting water in streams and wells far from their homes. Many of these girls are forced to miss school to meet their household’s water needs, reducing their future career options and earning potential. Women in these communities are also unable to pursue potentially gainful economic opportunities as much of their time is spent fetching water, perpetuating socioeconomic disadvantages.

More so, water insecurity burdens poor households with additional costs as the need to purchase water rises, limiting their capacity to escape poverty. For instance, the water shortage prompted by the recent drought in the Horn of Africa left some communities with no other choice but to purchase water from vendors who had hiked the price by almost 400%

  1. Water scarcity widens the gender gap.

The water crisis continues to widen gender gaps in Africa, especially in underserved populations. As earlier mentioned, in many rural communities across the continent, the responsibility to collect water in many households disproportionately falls on girls and women. The water collection points are often far from their homes and carrying water-filled jerrycans over long distances is strenuous and exhausting.

Consequently, the time and energy spent on water collection tasks reduces educational opportunities for girls as they miss school regularly or drop out altogether. Many women in underserved populations in Africa are also unable to pursue income generating activities as they spend much of their time fetching water. 

For context, a 2015 UNICEF report highlighted that girls and women in Sub-Saharan Africa were spending an estimated 40 billion hours annually collecting water, equivalent to a year’s worth of work for an entire workforce in some developed countries.

Considering the extent to which the water crisis has escalated since, the actual time spent by girls and women across the continent is likely much higher, spotlighting the greater burden water scarcity places on women in underserved populations. 

  1. Africa’s water crisis is undermining the continent’s economic prosperity.  

Africa’s economic prosperity depends on various sectors, many of which are water-dependent. For instance, agriculture is the backbone of numerous African economies, including Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, and Liberia. Sadly, the prolonged droughts recorded in the past few years have significantly lowered crop yields, triggering economic devastation across the continent. 

Additionally, sustainable industrial development fosters economic growth by creating job opportunities, promoting international trade, and supporting the delivery of social services, making industries an economy’s lifeblood. However, Africa’s water crisis stifles this development by derailing industrial processes, deteriorating sanitation, and turning away investors as they are unwilling to establish ventures in water-strained regions. Case in point, in South Africa’s industrial heartland Gauteng, the demand for water exceeds supply. This is thanks to the province’s rapidly growing population and the industrial demands, which prompt excessive water consumption even in the face of drought-induced water shortage. Consequently, this hinders the country’s economic growth.  

More importantly, adequate energy supply is vital to economic expansion. Numerous African states, including DRC, Mozambique, South Africa, Kenya, and Zambia depend on hydropower to meet their populations’ energy needs and facilitate various economic activities. Nevertheless, scarcity of water threatens power supply in these countries, jeopardising energy-dependent operations and limiting economic development.  

  1. Water shortage poses obstacles to education in Africa. 
Locals queue for water at Brewery Spring in Rondebosch, Cape Town

The adverse impact of the continent’s water crisis on education cannot be ignored. Inadequate water is a recipe for poor sanitation and increased health risks. This translates to increased absenteeism due to students’ declining health, interrupting education. In some instances, disease outbreaks force school closures, further compromising educational progress. 

In April 2023, two schools in Kenya’s Kakamega County were closed following a bacterial infection outbreak in one of the schools that claimed four lives and left several others hospitalised. Investigations determined water pollution to be the cause.  

Another obstacle to education is the unequal burden placed on school-aged girls, particularly in rural areas, who often have to make trips to and from water collection points to counter the impacts of water scarcity at home. Doing this comes at a cost as they often fall behind in their education or entirely drop out.  

In some regions, the cost of water inflates, pressuring families to choose between affording water or their children’s education. The immediate need for survival trumps education, so parents withdraw their children from school. Some children’s education is also cut short when their families are forced to migrate from their homes because of inadequate water. 

  1. Wasteful water use and inefficient water management practices continue to exacerbate water shortage in Africa. 
Janet Muriungi working in her farm. Greenpeace visits farmers that have successfully adopted practices (diversification, agroforestry, water harvesting) that help them cope and mitigate the effects of weather extremes and climate change in the areas where they do their farming. Some of these practices fall within the definition of ecological farming.

Africa’s already dire water distress is further aggravated by insufficient water management practices. In South Africa, this inadequacy is revealed by the dilapidated water infrastructure plagued by leaky pipes and inadequately maintained distribution systems, causing significant water losses and reduced overall quality of water at source.   

Wasteful water use in agriculture also contributes to water scarcity. Of the 70% of the freshwater accessible for irrigation globally, around 60% is lost as a result of unsustainable application methods, farming crops that are too thirsty for the environment, and leaky irrigation systems. The Food and Agriculture Organisation terms irrigation as “notoriously wasteful” as water is either wasted by leaking canals and over irrigation, a common occurrence in African countries

Calling on all visionaries: Let’s end water scarcity in Africa. 

Our dwindling water supplies are slowly turning food security, good health, social stability, and other basic necessities into luxuries that many of us may not afford if we allow this trend to continue. The cost of staying silent and failing to take action is too high. We have already witnessed the devastating impacts of water scarcity; it is time we all moved from the sidelines and took a collective stand to save our continent, ourselves, and the planet. 

We must demand our leaders and governments to act on water scarcity by:

  • Upgrading our water infrastructure to minimise water loss. 
  • Implementing policies that foster sustainable water management practices and water conservation. 
  • Setting and enforcing clear water-use regulations for industries, businesses, and households.
  • Supporting research and development into sustainable and water-efficient agricultural processes. 
  • Most importantly – they must take action on climate change and the industries driving pollution and biodiversity loss. The water crisis will only worsen as extreme weather, heat and droughts do. It will only worsen as our forest cover disappears, our water sources degrade, and plastic clogs our rivers.

Our collective voice and relentless dedication has the power to create lasting solutions to the water crisis that could secure our future and that of generations to come.