/ 29 July 2023

African cities’ water crisis: ‘Too much, too little, too polluted’

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Gauteng water users need to use water ‘more carefully and efficiently’, says water expert. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

African cities are faced with having too much water, too little water or polluted water coupled with rapid urbanisation that places people at risk of the disastrous effects of climate change.

Aklilu Fikresilassie, director of Thriving and Resilient Cities at the World Resource Institute, told the Brics Urbanisation Forum in Durban this week that more than 900 million people would be living in cities across Africa by 2050. But most of the people moving into cities would live in urban slums vulnerable to climate change induced floods.

“Rapid urbanisation in Africa is mostly unplanned, leaving most residents vulnerable to water-related risks. Over 50% of Africa’s urban population live in informal settlements and slums. Our studies show that two thirds of the urban infrastructure needed in Africa by 2050 is yet to be developed,” Fikresilassie said.

He said governments and donors have been working in silos to confront water issues and climate change but there is a need to collaborate and for cities to look beyond their boundaries, because flooding disasters often start on the periphery as cities are rapidly expanding and outgrowing their boundaries.

“Most governments and development partners often talk about water shortages, yet most African cities do not have enough water, but there is another dimension where cities are being washed away by water shocks, and water is too polluted, so there is too much and too little water in African cities.”

He highlighted recent floods in Beira, Accra, Kisumu and the drought in Cape Town, which is expected to experience more regular, more severe and longer droughts in future, according to climate change research.

Fikresilassie said water resilience stakeholders give little attention to cities, and their “minimal actions are currently uncoordinated and poorly funded”.

“We need a new approach to supporting strategic water resilience action plans and a continent-wide platform of partners to coordinate technical assistance and capacity,” he said.

He highlighted the work of the African Cities Water Adaptation Fund (ACWA Fund) as an example of the potential for collaboration. The fund is a coalition of 28 partners — research institutes, national governments and private sector stakeholders. The purpose is to accelerate the development of holistic water resilience solutions.

The fund aims to leverage at least $5 billion in financing to implement strategic projects in 100 African cities by 2032.

Johann Lübbe, head of the water partnerships office at Development Bank of Southern Africa, said the public and private sector needed to collaborate to mitigate the risks of climate change.

“We know what to do, the problem is how to do it. If you look at the water sector the main responsibility for water supply and services is the public sector but we know governments don’t do this alone — the expertise, construction and maintenance sit in the private sector,” Lübbe said.

He said South Africa’s department of water and sanitation had established the water partnerships office to create opportunities for the private sector to partner with the government to enhance service delivery.

Lübbe said programmes the office is focusing on include the reuse of water and diversification of the municipal water mix, for example, sludge beneficiation; supporting municipalities to improve water revenue collection; supporting municipalities to refurbish their wastewater treatment plants by developing innovative funding methods; supporting municipalities to improve how they run their water businesses; attracting the private sector to invest in desalination, and harnessing technology for non-sewer sanitation to be rolled out on a larger scale.

“We are engaging with a number of municipalities to see how we can start supporting them – needs a strong focus on the preparation, design and structure of projects to get them to the point to proceed to implementation,” he said.

The sole factor that attracts investors to cities is security of water supply, said Mbulelo Tshangana, director general in South Africa’s department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs. 

“Behind that is water reticulation management and pricing,” he said. 

Tshangana highlighted the floods that hit Durban in April 2022 and Cape Town’s 2015 drought that saw dams empty to crisis levels in two years. 

“Cape Town is still a water scarce city … research shows that droughts will be more regular, droughts will be more severe, and longer. So, we are being warned but data is meaningless if we are not going to change our policies and programmes,” he said.