On 28 July 2010, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a historical resolution recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights” (UNGA, 2010, para. 1). International human rights law obliges states to work towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation for all, without discrimination, while prioritizing those most in need.
Water use has been increasing worldwide by about 1% per year since the 1980s, driven by a combination of population growth, socio-economic development and changing consumption patterns. Global water demand is expected to continue increasing at a similar rate until 2050, accounting for an increase of 20 to 30% above the current level of water use, mainly due to rising demand in the industrial and domestic sectors. Over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high physical water stress, and about 4.0 billion people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year. Stress levels will continue to increase as demand for water grows and the effects of climate change intensify.
Despite Africa’s rainy equatorial zone, long rivers, great lakes and vast shores, water – just like other natural resources – is unevenly distributed across the region. About 75% of sub-Saharan Africa’s water resources are concentrated in eight major river basins. More worryingly, sweeping climatic and environmental changes have considerably reduced fresh water quantity over the past 20 years. As a result, most countries in the region are under severe water stress. Water resource challenges have long existed in Sub-Saharan Africa, but their impact has been amplified by recent trends such as increasing urbanisation, economic growth, maritime trade and, of course, climate change.
The lack of water management infrastructure (economic water scarcity), in terms of both storage and supply delivery, as well as for improved drinking water and sanitation services, plays a direct role in the persistence ofpoverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.People living in rural areas account for about 60% of the total population of Sub-Saharan Africa, and many of them remain in poverty. In 2015, three out of five of the region’s rural residents had access to at least a basic water supply and only one in five had access to at least basic sanitation. About 10% of the population stilldrank untreated surface water, and many poor people in rural areas, particularly women and girls, spent aconsiderable amount of time collecting water.
From Lagos in the west to Dar es Salaam in the east, from Cairo in the north to Cape Town in the south, slum dwellers, the middle class and the elite alike are engaged in the water race. More than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa. Of the additional 2.4 billion people projected to be added to the global population between 2015 and 2050, 1.3 billion will be added in Africa and the difficulties African cities currently face in providing sustainable water services will be further exacerbated.Providing this growing population with access to WASH services, however, is not the only challenge for Africa,as the demands for energy, food, jobs, healthcare and education will also increase. Population growth especiallyoccurs in urban areas, and without proper planning, this might lead to a dramatic increase of slums. Even if countries have steadily improved living conditions in urban slums between 2000 and 2015, the rate of new home construction lagged far behind the rate of urban population growth.
The African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) recognizes the fact that, without regional and international solidarity laced with a shared vision, strong cooperation between different countries and strong partnerships, the noble objective of eradicating poverty and ensuring access to water and sanitation by 2030 will remain a mirage.
This publication distinguishes three key dimensions in the concept of equitable access to water and sanitation: geographical differences in service provided; discrimination or exclusion in access to services by vulnerable and marginalized groups; and financial affordability for users. The strong linkages between the provision of water supply services and the provision of sanitation services demand a holistic approach to promoting equitable access to water and sanitation.
Social dimensions: The social and cultural factors driving exclusion and discrimination need to be considered when endeavouring to fulfil the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, as well as to implement Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. Discrimination may happen in various ways and for different reasons. Direct discrimination occurs when individuals are discriminated against in laws, policies or practices that intentionally exclude them from service provision or equal treatment. Indirect discrimination occurs when laws, regulations, policies or practices seem neutral at face value, but in practice have the effect of exclusion from the provision of basic services.
The basic provision of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities at home and in the workplace enhances workforce health and productivity. Providing similar facilities in schools enhances education outcomes by reducing absenteeism, particularly among adolescent girls. Comparatively lower levels of access to water and sanitation services can be observed among ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples. Valuing traditional knowledge through the recognition of indigenous peoples’ stewardship of land and water supports inclusion and the fulfilment of human rights.
Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) is one of the regions with low levels of coverage of water and sanitation. SSA, like other least developed regions, did not meet the MDG target but progressed during the MDG period, with 42% of its current population gaining access to improved drinking water since 1990.
Economic dimensions: The vulnerable and disadvantaged, who are typically not connected to piped systems, suffer disproportionately from inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation services and often pay more for their water supply services than their connected counterparts. The human rights to water and sanitation place obligations on states and utilities to regulate payments for services and to ensure that all members of the population can afford access to basic services. Ensuring that water is affordable to all requires policy recommendations tailored to specific target groups.
The wealthy generally receive high levels service at very low cost while the poor often pay a much higher price for a service of similar or lesser quality. People living in informal settlements (‘slums’) with no formal physical address are regularly excluded from water and sanitation service provision schemes. They are often overlooked by authorities and service providers on the basis that they are ‘hidden’ or ‘lost’ in aggregated statistics. Supplying groups of households (rather than individual households) in peri-urban low-income areas and large villages could reduce investment costs while still allowing a better service level for the poorest.
Even with improved efficiency, it is likely that subsidies will continue to be important for achieving universal coverage. Because subsidies are most often linked to capital expenditures and those are most often focused on relatively well-off communities, the non-poor have often been the beneficiaries of subsidy interventions intended to reach the poor. Sanitation services may be more natural candidates for subsidies than water supply services, since willingness to pay for such services is often lower and the wider social benefits are higher. Subsidies that promote greater community participation empower vulnerable groups to allocate resources toward their own priorities.
It is estimated that Africa loses 5% of its annual GDP due to poor access to clean drinking water and sanitation; 5% to 25% to droughts and floods in affected countries; and 2% to regular power outages. In addition to the cost of insufficient water security, the cost of climate change in Africa is estimated to be 1.5% to 3% of GDP by 2030 and is expected to reach 10% by 2100 under a business-as-usual scenario.The above extant challenges have propelled African leaders into taking many steps, including the adoption of a Common African Position (CAP) with origins soaked in Agenda 2063, an African Union-driven agenda aimed at creating the Africa which Africans want to see by the year 2063.
Approximately 340 million people in sub-Saharan Africa still do not have access to potable water, and a further 508 million do not have access to improved sanitation. The African Development Bank estimates that Africa needs US$11 billion per year to achieve the SDG6 of ensuring that everyone has access to potable water and sanitation. Added to Africa’s apparent lack of financial resources to meet this goal is a gaping lack of capacity and weak institutions, non-implementation of commitments and weak policies.
Good governance: Having inclusive institutional structures in place for multi-stakeholder dialogue and cooperation is essential to ensuring equitable access to sustainable water supply and sanitation services. Government alone cannot always take on the full responsibility for ‘providing’ water supply and sanitation services to all citizens, especially in low-income settings. When governments’ role is geared towards policy setting and regulation, the actual provision of services is carried out by non-state actors or independent departments. Well-functioning accountability mechanisms help institutions with enough capacity fulfil their mandates to monitor and enforce the obligations of service providers.
The human rights-based approach (HRBA) advocates for the fundamental standards, principles and criteria of human rights frameworks. These include non-discrimination and participation that is active, free and meaningful, as well as representation by and for people in disadvantaged or vulnerable situations. Good governance relates to systems that have qualities of accountability, transparency, legitimacy, public participation, justice and efficiency and therefore overlaps with the principles of the HRBA. Good water governance involves measures and mechanisms that promote effective policy implementation along with sanctions against poor performance, illegal acts and abuses of power. Holding decision-makers accountable requires ability, willingness and preparedness among rights-holders (or their representatives) to scrutinize actions and non-actions. This in turn builds on transparency, integrity and access to information.
Refugees and forcibly displaced people:
The world has been witnessing the highest levels of human displacement on record. Armed conflict, persecution and climate change, in tandem with poverty, inequality, urban population growth, poor land use management and weak governance, are increasing the risk of displacement and its impacts. Away from home, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) are often faced with barriers to access basic water supply and sanitation services. Almost a quarter of these displaced people live in camps, but the overwhelming majority are hosted in cities, towns and villages. These refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs and stateless persons are often not officially recognized by local or national government and are therefore excluded from development agendas.
Away from home, refugees and internally displaced people are among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, often faced with barriers to access basic water supply and sanitation services. By the end of the year 2017, an unprecedented 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of conflict, persecution, or human rights violations. Another 18.8 million people were displaced by sudden-onset disasters – a situation that is likely to worsen because of climate change. Mass displacement places strain upon natural resources and water-related services at transition and destination points for both existing populations and new arrivals, creating potential inequalities among them.
Large-scale and complex emergencies (such as conflict and cross-border fighting) often occur in low-income countries or fragile states, where government institutions have weak coping capacity. Typically, they may struggle to deliver essential service authority and service delivery functions routinely even in non-emergency situations.
(Jayakumar Ramasamy is a Programme Specialist – Natural Sciences, at the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa)