The water crisis in African cities

Published on Pambazuka News, by Michel Makpenon June 6, 2011.

Access to running water remains in a state of crisis for a huge number of people across Africa, writes Michel Makpenon. With growing urbanisation across the continent, African cities will need the political determination to ensure sustainable water resources based on social need rather than commercial concerns, he stresses … //

… If we do not want future generations to suffer the consequences of our mistakes, as Lisa Ochola did, we must listen to the opinion of Professor Kader Asmal, winner of the Stockholm Water Award: ‘We cannot enter the 21st century with the usual commercial approach we are used to having concerning water management in big cities. We must make a realistic assessment of our water management capabilities in specific circumstances. We must dare. We must show unfailing commitment to equity. We need political determination. It is important that research and education play their role and lead the way that will best achieve fairness and efficiency in the long term. Finally we need national and international collaboration and understanding because sustainable water management represents long term security for all of us.’  


Access to clean water in Africa does not correspond to that of Europe.

In fact, a small proportion of the population has access to drinking water and the water service is not restricted to the conventional networks, as there are still other drinking-water sources available such as communal water points (springs), wells and boreholes.

Water from the natural environment (oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks, groundwater, rains) is a collective good. It belongs altogether to no one and to everyone. Considered as a natural resource, water has multiple utilisations: agriculture (70 per cent), industry (20 per cent) and domestic consumption (10 per cent).

Water management is complex. It is a cross-cutting resource because it affects altogether health, urban development, agriculture, industry and leisure. It also has multiple stakeholders and has to be approached on a territorial basis too.

Management of water services is rather complicated. It requires high technical ability, permanent adaptation to changing conditions and important funds, because of the high cost of infrastructure and equipments, together with permanent maintenance needs.

Although water management has often been transferred to local authorities in Africa, resources themselves were not transferred. Water companies are still in charge of water management in African cities, but without adequate consultation with local authorities.

In the case of Cotonou, access to drinking water seems secured, but some neighbourhoods still remain without water supply. (full text).


Development Global: Privatisation has failed to deliver water, now for a better idea, on Pambazuka News (first on AlterNet, by Mthandeki Nhlapo and Peter Waldorff and Susan George), May 5, 2011;

Sierra Leone: Freetown faces water crisis, on Pambazuka News, by Roland Bankole Marke, June 18, 2009;

Burundi: Access to water is a human right, by Concilie Gahungere, June 10, 2008;

World water crisis: A challenge to social justice, by Humphrey Sipalla, July,3 2007.

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