Exploring Africa's issues with water stress, scarcity, and insecurity, and seeking a way forward through policy and technology.
On 1 January 2018, the City of Cape Town in South Africa declared “Level 6” water restrictions. This level of restrictions meant that water usage would be limited to 87 litres (about the volume of a mini fridge) per person per day. One month later, the City raised the alert to Level 6B – 50 litres. Until very recently, most toilet cisterns contained 6 litres of water. Hence, 50 litres make up about eight toilet flushes. The City proceeded to print pamphlets showing residents how best to utilize 50 litres and warning that Level 7 might be activated, the vaunted “Day Zero”. Level 7 meant the city’s reservoirs had fallen to 13.5% capacity. The disaster which was imminent would not be fully averted until 2020 when good rains saw the capacity of the reservoirs reach 95%.
Unsurprisingly, South Africa is listed among the countries listed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) as facing “high baseline water stress”. The term “water stress” comes off as being rather self-explanatory, but to give it the proper definition, it is an aspect of water risk that “...measures the ratio of total water withdrawals to available renewable surface and groundwater supplies. Water withdrawals include domestic, industrial, irrigation, and livestock consumptive and nonconsumptive uses.” It differs from “water depletion”, which measures “the ratio of total water consumption to available renewable water supplies. Total water consumption includes domestic, industrial, irrigation and livestock consumptive uses.”
A rising global population means there is a growing demand for water. The African continent is no exception, being the region with the fastest-rising population. Africa is also one of the fastest-growing economies globally, with rapid socioeconomic development and urbanization. All of these will lead to a demand for water, with withdrawals for industry, agriculture, and domestic uses. Supply must meet the rising demand, and the level of water stress a country will face is estimated by how much of its available supply it will withdraw every year.
Fifteen African countries are facing varying levels of high water stress, which means they are withdrawing 20-80% of the available supply. Three African countries – Libya, Eritrea, and Botswana – are experiencing extremely high baseline water stress, withdrawing higher than 80% of the available water supply. An additional twelve are facing high levels of water stress, withdrawing between 40% and 80% of the supply per year.
Withdrawing 40% of your available water supply does not seem like too much of a problem. After all, there’s still an unused 60%; that water cycle isn’t straining any time soon. However, leaving such a narrow gap between supply and demand leaves a country vulnerable to shocks like droughts and prolonged dry seasons, or increased water withdrawals and the myriad of reasons that may lead to that.
Assume a country comes to the realization that is awash with a valuable mineral and decides to mine extensively. Solid mineral mining is known for its intensive use of freshwater. Suddenly water withdrawals spike and a city or state can go from using 30% of its water to 55%. We say “city or state” because it is possible for just a single part of a country to experience intense water stress. Take, for example, the droughts in the American state of California, the Brazilian city of São Paulo, the Indian city of Chennai, or our reference city in South Africa. We started this with Cape Town in South Africa, a country already with medium-high water stress. It took one year of drought in the country's Western Cape to push that region as close to “Day Zero” as any major city has ever come.
Droughts are becoming a major issue on the African continent, pushing previously “safe” countries into water stress and insecurity. A UNICEF report on the water crisis in the Horn of Africa revealed some worrying facts, including that the effects of climate change will lead to variations in rainfall patterns going forward, leading to reduced water supply. This is part of the growing water insecurity and scarcity that has led the African Development Bank to predict that by 2025, close to 230 million Africans will be facing water scarcity, and up to 460 million will be living in water-stressed areas. 2025 is less than two years away.
The anti-poverty platform, Global Citizen, describes water scarcity as being of two types. Physical scarcity is that which comes with changes in climate and weather patterns, causing shortages through phenomena like drought. Economic scarcity is when water is inaccessible due to institutional failings such as a lack of infrastructure, investment, and planning. Africa is facing both, and they feed into each other, but one can be tackled, which can then serve to reduce the effects of the other.
There are solutions that countries can investigate and implement to control water stress and scarcity, as well as ensure water security. WRI lists three:
Increasing agricultural efficiency through improving irrigation techniques, and cultivating more resilient seed crops;
Investing in infrastructure such as reservoirs, pipes, and watersheds to control both water quality and supply, and;
Treating, reusing, and recycling water, which will involve large-scale municipal systems that capture wastewater, treat it, and recycle it for reuse instead of wasting. Extremely high water stress countries such as Oman are already utilizing this, as that country treats 100% of its collected wastewater.
We know that Africa will continue to feel the effects of climate change. Hence, physical scarcity is unavoidable at this point and going forward. Economic scarcity doesn’t have to be a problem too. Following the steps listed above and more, governments can protect their citizens from water insecurity. We can end as we began: in Cape Town, South Africa. The steps that the city took in installing water infrastructure such as dams and reservoirs, collecting and treating wastewater, and having measures in place for controlling water supply and usage, saved that city from the fabled “Day Zero”. That day never came, and the taps never ran dry. Other African countries and cities will be wise to learn and apply.