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UN report exposes water shortages

NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 21 – Rapid urbanisation over the last five decades is changing Africa’s landscape and also generating formidable challenges for supplies of water and sanitation services, according to a new UN report released on Monday.

The Rapid Response Assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN-Habitat indicates that urban centres in Africa are growing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world.

Today 40 percent of Africa’s one billion people live in urban areas –60 percent in slums– where water supplies and sanitation are severely inadequate, according to the report that was launched to coincide with World Water Day.

Africa’s urban population without access to safe drinking water jumped from close to 30 million in 1990 to well over 55 million in 2008.

Over the same period, the number of people without reasonable sanitation services doubled to around 175 million.

“These are the stark realities and the sobering facts which need to be addressed as nations prepare for the landmark UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

The conference, also known as Rio+20, takes a Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication as one of its two major themes.

“There is growing evidence from work on the Green Economy that a different path in terms of water and sanitation can begin to be realized. Indeed, public policies that re-direct over a tenth of a per cent of global GDP per year can assist in not only addressing the sanitation challenge but conserve freshwater by reducing water demand by a fifth over the coming decades compared to projected trends,” added Mr Steiner.

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Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, said: “This report could not come at a more opportune moment.  Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent on the planet and the demand for water and sanitation is outstripping supply in cities.  As cities expand, we must improve our urban planning and management in order to provide universal access to water and basic services while ensuring our cities become more resilient to the increasing effects of climate change”.

The report, which underlines the growing cooperation between UN-Habitat and UNEP on such issues, provides case studies of cities in several parts of the Continent where high urbanization rates are not matched with adequate water and sanitation infrastructure.

These include:

Addis Ababa

For the past 50 years Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and one of the largest cities in Africa, has grown from 100,000 to 3.5 million people and is today facing severe challenges to provide its residents with enough freshwater and sanitation services. According to the report, only five percent of the solid waste collected in Addis Ababa is recycled and the rest is often piled on open ground, banks of streams and near bridges where it is washed into the rivers.  Moreover, fears of food poisoning are worsened by the fact the 60 percent of the city’s food consumption is supplied by urban farmers who irrigate their crops using wastewater.


Grahamstown in South Africa is another case study highlighted in the report. Located in a dry part of the country with frequent droughts, the city has seen its population more than double from 76,000 in 2004. Inspiring water initiatives, such as the Blue Drop System which is a regulatory tool used by South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs to monitor the quality of drinking water, and rainwater harvesting has helped the city to provide adequate water services to its growing population. However, the city predicts future crises as climate change brings more droughts and water shortages.


Nairobi, Kenya’s largest city, has seen its population increase from 119,000 in 1948 to 3.1 million today, many in the more than 200 slum settlements spread across the city and have limited access to safe water and sanitation. The largest slum, Kibera, receives about 20,000 m3 of water per day, 40 percent of which is unaccounted for as it is lost through leakage or dilapidated infrastructure.

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With half of Kenya’s population expected to be living in urban settlements by 2015, the country is looking for solutions and in 2002 introduced the Water Act to improve the legislative framework for effective management and control of water resources.

In line with the Water Act, Nairobi has also established the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) which now works in informal settlements like Kibera in an attempt to improve access for the urban poor to water and sanitation.

But while there are solutions, much more needs to be done, notes the report, to improve access to safe drinking water and sanitation for urban areas.

Moreover, it is essential that the long-term solutions make a connection between urbanization, water and ecosystems and recognize that urban areas in Africa will continue to grow and will the demand for water and sanitation services.

According to the report, solutions and policy interventions should consider some of the following options:

•    Mainstream the environment into urban water management;
•    Acknowledge and support the role of the private sector in complementing government and municipal authorities in delivering water and sanitation services especially to the poor urban areas;
•    Take into account the generally high levels of income poverty in Africa by acknowledging that market-based approaches are not always the best option to supplying water in urban areas in a sustainable way;
•    Inform residents about how the links between forests, protected areas and water supply;
•    Demonstrate that it pays to protect watersheds, instead of building expensive water purification systems;
•    Raise awareness on the impact of poor water quality on health, economy and the environment;
•    Mainstream the environment into urban water management through approaches such as Payments for Ecosystems Services, Integrated Water Resources Management, and Water Demand Management.


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