Africa needs to improve its water resilience as cities grow and 'climate change hammers the continent'

22 July 2021 - 08:00
Africa needs to build water resilience to stave off water shocks as as its population expands along with the devastating effects of climate change.
Africa needs to build water resilience to stave off water shocks as as its population expands along with the devastating effects of climate change.
Image: Supplied

Africa's urban poor are faced with devastating water shocks unless governments act now to head off disaster, according to a report by the World Resources Institute.

With water supply infrastructure under increasing pressure as Africa's cities continue to grow, building “water resilience” is needed to protect poorer urban communities, the study's authors said.

According to the study, which was conducted by the WRI's  Urban Water Resilience in Africa Initiative, an estimated 40% of the continent's people live in arid or semi-arid areas where per capita annual water availability is around two-thirds of the global average. This, coupled with climate change and urban growth, made access to clean water one of Africa's most pressing challenges, the report said.

“By 2050, Africa will be a different continent than today. Its urban population will double. Impacts from climate change will worsen and water demand will quadruple. Millions will depend on infrastructure that has yet to be built.”

By 2050, a projected 1.5 billion people on the continent will call cities home, more than double the current number, the authors said.

The researchers estimated that two-thirds of Africa's urban residents lacked clean, safe water and sanitation.

Rapid urbanisation was degrading catchment areas and altering natural flow patterns, which coupled with the effects of climate change, were hampering cities' ability to cope with both water scarcity and floods.

There have been 654 floods in Africa in the past 30 years, affecting 38 million people. 

In 2018, floods caused by a combination of heavy rain, lack of preparedness, ailing infrastructure and the loss of natural lands displaced 260,000 people in Kenya alone and affected another half a million people in Somalia. 

Meanwhile, Africa continued to feel the disproportionate effects of climate change.

“Over 65% of urban residents in Africa are expected to face 'extreme' climate risks, yet the continent contributes the least to climate change,” Marcella Kim wrote in a WRI paper on steps Durban had taken to improve its own water resilience.

The researchers said Durban offered salient lessons in staving off future water shocks.

Only 10 years ago, the city was grappling with a severe water crisis as dam levels dropped 20% below average levels and a quarter of its residents were living in water-stressed informal settlements.

Meanwhile, the city was growing faster than its municipality could provide infrastructure.

“Service backlogs and proliferating slums seemed to be entrenching poverty,” the authors said.

The traditional way of coping with urban growth by building more dams and wastewater treatment plants was not working.

Instead what was needed was to target the root causes of the problem and targeting the people most in need.

The first part of Durban’s solution was to recognise that the catchment area was larger than the city’s jurisdiction which meant that other players such as nearby towns and rural areas also had to be involved.

In 2013, the eThekwini Municipality along with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and a number of private companies and NGOs established uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership (UEIP) which was designed to protect and manage the entire watershed ecosystem.

One project involved rehabilitating one of the uMngeni River’s small but heavily polluted tributaries whose water was of such poor quality it was unfit for even irrigating crops. 

Meanwhile, the partnership grappled with local residents and industry to to halt illegal dumping into the waterway.

A second key factor was including all the city’s people ranging from residents in informal settlements to environmental activists and business people in the process.

“It is essential to incorporate community stakeholders because their perspectives help shape and define resilience in a locally rooted way that responds to real challenges on the ground,” the authors said.

The researchers noted, however, that despite the good progress, Durban still faced challenges — in 2019, floods killed 60 people from collapsed buildings, mudslides and sinkholes.

Fundamental shifts were also still needed across the continent to ensure water resilience.

The report highlighted initiatives in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where ecosystems were being restored. 

Flood mitigation work is also under way in Nairobi.

“Ultimately, city and regional decisionmakers, including national governments and the international community, need to shift how cities plan, manage, govern and finance their water and urban systems,” the authors warned.

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