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Fresh Water

Fresh Water Feature Article

Fresh Water in Africa


According to the South African Treasury, R75 billion has been allocated in the current book year towards “water infrastructure, quality management, resource planning and support to local government”1. This money will be spent over the next three years to address our country’s water-related problems.

What water-related problems? Isn’t there enough H2O when I open the tap, flush the toilet, run a bath? And sure, not everybody in the townships has a household connection – yet – but we are making good progress, aren’t we?
In June 2009 already the City of Cape Town was ahead of their target of a maximum of 25 informal houses per tap. In fact, this figure stood on only 10,8 households per tap2.

Alas, while other African countries might still be facing the challenge of necessary infrastructure for the provision of water, South Africa might soon find its infrastructure redundant.

According to the Environmental State-And-Trends: 20-Year Retrospective, 14 African countries already experience water stress (less than 1 700 m3 per capita/year) or water scarcity (less than 1 000 m3 per capita/year)3. By 2025 at least 15 African countries will be in a situation of water scarcity – including South Africa.

South Africa is home to one-third of the region’s population, reports the website Water Rhapsody4. The pressure on our resources is immense: while South Africa accounts for eighty percent of Southern Africa’s water use, only 10 percent of the total water resource is available in South Africa.

In the light of the above the Millennium Development Goal of “clean water” sounds like an understatement. Water is, after all, a prime example of the so-called wicked problem, or mess, as Russel Ackoff preferred.

As a goal in itself, clean water is imperative in achieving each of the fourteen other UN Millennium Development Goals.

The door opened by the Africa Water Atlas onto more detailed challenges surrounding ‘clean water’, reminds of a Pandora’s Box with all that it promises, and, one can only assume, the paralysis often experienced in the face of great challenges5:

  • provide water for food security;
  • prevent land degradation and water pollution;
  • manage water under global climate change;
  • enhance capacity to address water challenges;
  • develop hydropower to enhance energy security;
  • foster cooperation in trans-boundary water basins;
  • ensure access to adequate sanitation;
  • provide safe drinking water.

As recently as 2004, a mere 16% of people in sub-Saharan Africa had access to drinking water through a household connection (an indoor tap or a tap in the yard)3. It is the second driest region, having to support 15% of the world’s population on 9% of it’s renewable water resources.

What is more, three quarters of the population lives of 15% of the available resources (ground water). Despite it being relatively expensive to drill for water, once a source is established, the general maintenance is low. Because of the pressure on this source, the advantages it was previously associated with are being eroded: groundwater is naturally protected from bacterial contamination. However, because of the amounts of water pumped from the ground, a void is created. This space is then filled by other sources in the vicinity – often sewerage or water already contaminated by heavy metals and bacteria.

In fact, the story of fresh water in Africa is typical of a continent where hope and despair are interlinked like Siamese twins. Or, as described in the Africa Water Atlas: hot spots and hope spots.

But to focus on the hot spots only will be reason for despair, as we know that the issue of fresh water is not limited to supply. Factors such as urbanisation, socio-economic aspects and national and regional politics all contribute to the intricateness of the challenge.

Hope is the single most important commodity the future holds. Hope for a better life for oneself and one’s children.
And while the smell of food doesn’t fill your stomach or the jingle of money doesn’t fill your purse – as the character Tijl Uilenspiegel from a famous Dutch folklore once said - it is the first important step.

The documents included in this month’s Bibliozone are filled with stark facts, often debilitating in its severity. But in between the facts you will also find the hope spots so necessary for further change.

There are four main challenges we clearly have to address in order for the hope spots to become ‘have spots’ include:

  • the creation of infrastructure,
  • assess the needs and wants,
  • political will to address the needs of every African, and
  • every citizen to take responsibility.

Are you in the habit of closing the tap while you brush your teeth, rather than simply washing tens of litres of water down the drain? Then you are a hope spot!


Frieda le Roux
Guest Editor


2Water Services Development Plan For City of Cape Town
3Environmental State-And-Trends: 20-Year Retrospective
445% of water lost due to leaking taps.
5Africa Water Atlas


Frieda le Roux, Freelance futurist, journalist

Read more about the author and her view on being a futurist.



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