#WorldWaterDay: Combatting Africa’s Water Challenges with Natural Infrastructures


Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6) aims to achieve clean drinking water and sanitation for everyone everywhere. According to a recent United Nations report, forty percent of the world’s population is affected by water scarcity and if not properly addressed, over 700 million people are projected to be out of water by 2030. Already, more than two billion people have no access to safe drinking water whilst 80 percent of wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment, causing water-related sicknesses and other socio-environmental disasters such as flooding, landslides, and tsunamis. Africa is caught up at the center of global water challenges as over half of the people without access to clean water and sanitary services live predominantly in rural areas of Central, Southern and Eastern Asia as well as sub-Saharan Africa.

In August 2017, Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital was affected by its worst natural disaster with a devastating mudslide that destroyed homes and buried hundreds under the remains. It was reported that over a thousand people died and more still missing. That same month, thousands of people in Niamey, Niger’s capital city, were advised to evacuate their homes following severe flooding that cost over 200 of their shelters. Similarly, over 200 people are believed to have lost their lives after a mudslide hit a fishing village in Congo last year August.

The Case of South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa with a population of Four million people, has constantly experienced large immigration growth; doubling its population in the last 30 years. This, together with climate change, has constantly upset the balance between water use and supply.

The dams are now at a critical low, presently at 22.9% as the city gets closer to running out of water and taps are shut off to homes and businesses because reservoirs have gotten extremely low. Only 50 liters of water are to be used a day while heavy fines are imposed on defaulters.

Once the dams reach 13.5% capacity, the city will announce “Day Zero” – a day Cape Town is predicted to run out of water.

Although the city has been dependent on rainwater for the last three years, it will take at least three seasons of abundant rainfall before the region experiences a real positive change.

 Water Crises In Nigeria

Despite adopting the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, Nigeria may not be on the path to achieving them by 2030, based on current progress level. A 2017 UNICEF water report reveals that Nigeria, together with thirty six (36) other countries are facing extremely high levels of water stress and there are high chances that water related diseases may double in the country. Only about 60 percent of the population have access to safe and clean water. Moreover, about 160 million Nigerians are at a risk of contracting water borne disease as about 88% of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, are as a result of poor access to portable drinking water. Majority of the people only have access to water contaminated by faeces due to poor personal hygiene and other impure substances.

Combatting Africa’s Water Challenges

In approaching global water challenges, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), twenty-five (25) years ago, set aside the 22nd day of March every year as World Water Day, to create awareness on water resources management.

For 2018, global attention has been drawn to the possibility of harnessing nature-based solutions to combat the many water challenges faced in the 21st century.

Green and Gray Infrastructures

Green infrastructure makes use of vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments. It involves the strategic use of networks of natural lands, landscapes, and other open spaces to conserve the ecosystem and provide benefits to the human population. Clean, plentiful water depends on healthy surrounding natural systems such as forests as much of the world’s water is filtered through forested watersheds which improve water quality and protect water supply. Gray infrastructure on the other hand refers to man-made projects such as dams, water treatment plants.

While gray infrastructure is often designed for a limited set of functions, green infrastructure can perform unlimited range of activities at the same time directly replacing traditional engineering solutions. Green infrastructure helps maintain gray infrastructure, for example Upstream forests help prevent soil erosion that would otherwise spoil reservoirs. During dry periods, healthy forest areas and floodplains can store water for irrigation or drinking. Substituting or complementing traditional gray infrastructure with natural infrastructure could provide an alternative, cost-effective solution still enhancing environmental benefits.

Common examples of “gray” infrastructure are sewerage mains, tunnels, and wastewater treatment plants, which play key roles in collecting, conveying and treating sewages and storm water prior to discharge.

Green” infrastructure can complement grey infrastructure by absorbing storm water collected, hence, avoiding overflows during heavy rainfall. Green infrastructure also creates community benefits by acting as recreation areas.

Based on the 2017 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 5 (MICS5), conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in conjunction with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other development partners, it was revealed that 50 per cent of water facilities in Nigeria are not functional whilst no more than two to 2.5 per cent of households in Nigeria have modern water facilities. Furthermore, reports by UNICEF have shown that the greatest challenge facing Nigeria is the non-availability of physical infrastructure to harness rainfall and ground water effectively.

In the developed world however, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of investing in natural infrastructure. Between 2001 and 2009, 850,000 trees were planted to help protect regional water supplies. Although Nigeria has taken a leap by developing a National Water Resources Master Plan, spanning 2014 – 2030, for water resources development, water supply, irrigation, and other related issues; to resolve the major challenges inhibiting efficiency of water supply in the country, there is still a huge underinvestment in natural infrastructure in the country and the developing world at large.

Nevertheless, for Africa to address water challenges and limit both health and socio-environmental disasters, the use of natural infrastructures can be explored, as it’s already being done in many developed countries.

  • Public-Private partnerships are needed for increased investment in both Green and Grey infrastructures for water resources. Examples include huge investments in the treatment of water plants and dams.
  • Zoning ordinances, a non-incentive-based mechanism, which involves written regulations and laws that define how properties are used is now more expedient than ever. There should be laws that frown against bush burning and deforestation across Africa whilst specific geographic zones are to be prohibited form carrying out commercial activities.
  • Citizens need to do so much more with ‘green’ infrastructure and harmonize it with ‘grey’ infrastructure, like planting new forests, reconnecting rivers to floodplains, and restoring wetlands to rebalance water cycle and improve human health and livelihoods.

Resonating the theme of World Water Day 2018 ‘Nature for Water’, it is important that African countries explore nature-based solutions that have the potential to solve many of the continent’s water challenges especially as water, energy and food security rely on water infrastructures.

Finally, as the ecosystems on which life is based – food, energy, health, manufacturing, and buildings – are highly dependent on water and are presently at risk because of how water is managed today; focusing on improving water and water resources cum infrastructures has become more urgent than ever, especially in Africa.






















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