The African water crisis is simultaneously the continent’s most pressing and least reported-on social problem, and its severity is growing. At the time of writing, only a third of the continent’s growing population has reliable access to piped water, placing a severe constraint on economic development and sanitation projects. Rural supply is equally lacking,  encumbering the formalisation of the continent’s agricultural industry. To compound matters, a combination of climate change and increased usage will ensure continued water scarcity in the lead-up to 2050.

Unlike an industrial good, the supply of water can’t be increased through simple investment. Instead, Africa will have to invest into the deployment of water management systems to maximize the value it can get from its available water sources. This goal can be facilitated and aided by the implementation of various strategies, including automated management systems for the distribution of water, the treatment and reuse of greywater as a supplement to domestic use and irrigation, and the extraction of valuable mineral resources from waste water as an analogue to agriculture.

A need for better water infrastructure and wastewater management

The broad-based provision of water infrastructure across Africa has continued to face challenges over the past 20 years, as infrastructure has had to cope with a sizeable increase in urban populations without a parallel increase in infrastructure investment. In the period between 2000 and 2015, the number of those with access to water on the continent grew from 82 million to 124 million, an increase of 66%. By contrast Africa’s urban population grew by 80% in the same period, from 206 million to 375 million, highlighting the disconnect between the increase in water access and the migration of people and growth of urban centres.

The quality of water infrastructure also varies dramatically from country to country and region to region, however all are heavily dependent on government investment and subsidy. Even in regions where infrastructure does exist, bad management often leads to large scale loss in capacity, as in the case of South Africa where roughly 50% of piped water is lost due to evaporation and broken/burst pipes.

Compounding the shortage in water provision, Africa is also experiencing a growing crisis in the handling of its wastewater. With insufficient growth in the capacity of sanitation services to meet demand in urban areas, the continent now faces a chronic pollution problem, which will have serious ramifications for both environmental and human health if not addressed. A 2017 World Bank report found that a shortage of accurate data is a key hurdle for local water and sanitation providers, though African governments have not been wholly idle in addressing these challenges. In the past two months, the Ghanaian and Kenyan governments have spent over US$275 million between them in planned water expansion projects. Egypt is set to complete the biggest wastewater plant in the world next year, and in November, African finance ministers met for the fifth time since 2010 to discuss investments into smart water and sanitation infrastructure, demonstrating the political will to address the continent’s water and sanitation crisis.

A dry riverbed in Kitu County, Kenya, March 2019. East Africa has been identified as one of multiple high-risk regions for increasing droughts and water scarcity in the run-up to 2050. Image courtesy: John Kamau/WikiCommons

Climate change adds a new layer of challenges

Climate change has had and will continue to have a significant impact on water scarcity, not only in Africa but globally. Across the world there is an increase in erratic climate patterns, such as higher temperatures and unpredictable weather conditions that include floods and severe droughts, which affect the availability and distribution of rainfall water, river flows, snowmelt and groundwater. Current projections note that if the current trajectory of climate change persists, by 2030 water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 and 700 million people. Due to rainfall variability, it is estimated that by 2025 just over half (52%) of all countries worldwide are expected to face water shortages, most of these will be African. In South Africa, the repercussions of climate change have been felt most in the Western Cape province. Due to a severe three-year long drought, the city of Cape Town faced the prospect of losing piped water to homes and businesses in 2018. As a result, the government was forced to implement water restrictions and rationing to prevent ‘day zero’, an indication of no water available in the province’s storage centres. The situation in other arid regions such as North Africa are similar with climate change set to account for 22% of future water shortages in the region. The biggest impact of climate change will be felt in rural communities dependent on rainfall for their agricultural livelihoods. To limit these challenges, African governments need to invest in infrastructure, develop adequate contingency plans and make water conservation a priority.

New technology and innovation providing solutions

The problems posed by increasing populations in dense urban areas and their implications for water and wastewater management are not unique to Africa. The continent is in the fortunate position of being able to draw on a growing pool of global expertise in assisting to address local water access challenges. Advancements in IoT (Internet of Things) technology, ultra-fast 5G networks, self-learning Artificial Intelligence and blockchain technology, mean that the next generation of African water infrastructure could be leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors in logistical efficiency. Such technologies can be applied at all stages of the supply chain, starting from the management of distribution networks through to pollution abatement at the end of the line. Digitisation will enhance the supply side through better management and efficient maintenance of facilities, while the demand side in turn will benefit from more accurate monitoring and billing systems. Pollution abatement digitisation will further allow for more efficient recycling of water resources back into the main supply, reducing strain on dams and ground water sources. Some examples of various digital water management strategies in practice include non-profit organisations like Charity Water, who have deployed accelerometers and sensors that help keep track of well utilisation and maintenance needs across hundreds of projects in 12 different African countries. Since 2014, South Africa has begun to make extensive use of smart meters in both residential and industrial settings in better managing available water resources and keeping track of misuse. In countries such as Kenya, Liberia and Tanzania, sensors have been deployed in the wastewater chain to monitor water quality and the presence of solid matter in waterless toilets, while Egypt has begun to make use of satellite data to monitor water levels of the Nile River. As more advanced markets like India and China continue to address their own sanitation shortfalls, Africa will continually be able to draw from experienced international development partners in the endeavour to revamp its water and sanitation systems.

Sources: Science Direct, Copernicus Organisation, CG Trader; 2017-2020

Smart water expansion and management systems are low-hanging fruit

With African nations asserting their intent to tackle the water and sanitation crisis the path ahead appears open for firms capable of supplying the necessary technology to local utilities. Primary avenues to explore are digital management systems for pumping facilities and the provision of waste management tech, which both serve to help optimise water distribution and thus help governments move towards increasing access to water, hygiene and sanitation. The prime market opportunities for these technologies exist in three geographic clusters on the continent: in South, East and North Africa. Countries such as Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and those along the Mediterranean coast are ideal candidates, not just because they are all due to experience growing water scarcity in the run-up to 2050, but because they are some of Africa’s wealthiest nations, and as such have the purchasing power to holistically address their infrastructure shortfalls. Countries that don’t fall within danger zones for water scarcity, such as those in Central and West Africa, should not be discounted either, however, for these markets the emphasis will lie on the logistics of water provision, especially in rural areas where subsistence agriculture still dominates. With financial resources in many of these and other countries still lacking, it can be expected that the pivot will be more towards micro-grid systems that serve smaller rural communities and interface closely with renewable energy grids of the same scale.

Farmer Anton Roets measures irrigation at Goue Akker Farm, a supplier to Nestlé South Africa. The lack of irrigation infrastructure outside of a few key markets is a major stumbling block for the development of local agriculture industries. Image courtesy: Nestle/Flickr

Greywater solutions can add additional value

While wastewater management is a pressing social problem, in the right context it can also be a valuable resource. This was the position taken by the United Nations (UN) World Water Report 2017, which advocated for a paradigm shift in the way society handles its wastewater. To illustrate this point, we must first differentiate between grey and black water and the uses of each. Greywater can be defined as wastewater that does not contain sewage, and as such is still within the realm of treatment and reuse. Treated grey water has been used to successfully augment irrigation systems and drinking water in water-stressed states like Israel, and has widespread applications across both north and southern Africa. Black water on the other hand, so named because it contains sewage, is not entirely a spent resource and future investments into its treatment will enable utilities to harvest key minerals like nitrogen and phosphorus, which are of great utility in the agriculture space and related chemical industries. Despite the overall increase in wastewater produced on the continent, very little has been invested in mitigating the problem, with close to 700 million people across Africa still lacking what the UN would consider sufficient sanitation. However, with recent events like this November’s ‘Sanitation and Water for All’ Summit it appears that there is a shift in pattern towards viable opportunities in the supply of physical filters, chemical and organic wastewater management and supply systems. One fairly low-cost option that incorporates all of these is membrane bioreactor technology, which consists of a nano-filter with a bioreactor solution that uses bacteria to assist in the dissolution of solid effluent. This tech has been available since the late 1990s, but has only gained widespread global traction in the past decade. Southern Africa is the only region where such filtration plants have been deployed, with three currently operational at major metros in South Africa, and a single smaller operation serving the 8 000 strong mining community of Lamwala in Zambia. What makes the latter case particularly interesting is that it functions entirely off grid, which makes it an ideal candidate for rural sanitation solutions across Africa.

Desalination, a key strategy to curb water scarcity

The use of desalination, or more commonly known as the conversion of seawater to freshwater, could be a key opportunity for African countries to consider introducing into their water management and supply systems. Estimates note that by 2030 between 75 and 250 million Africans will be living in areas of high water scarcity, with desalination being well-poised to assist in addressing the challenge. The most common technique used in Africa is through reverse osmosis, whereas other methods of achieving the same utilise electrolysis, which is less suitable for seawater treatment. In recent years, such desalination plants have mushroomed though much of this is still concentrated along the North African coast; as of 2019, the region holds 80% of Africa’s desalination capacity. In Morocco, the government has accelerated its desalination strategy due to significant deficits of its water reservoirs in 2020. Several new projects have been implemented in Casablanca and Chtouka Ait Baha, while targeted investment has been sourced from Spain for the construction of two seawater desalination plants in Assa-Zag and Moulay Brahim to add to Morocco’s existing water infrastructure. Algeria is also an avid proponent and user of desalination technology, hosting 11 seawater desalination plants spread over nine provinces; the facilities produce 17% of the total amount of drinking water consumed nationally. In South Africa, the continent’s first solar-powered seawater desalination plant launched in 2019 and is producing more than 10 000 kilolitres (kl) of drinkable water, averaging 150kl of drinkable water a day. Despite the potential, desalination has key challenges which will affect African countries adopting this process, including high costs to build and operate plants, the environmental concerns surrounding the use of this strategy, and the large amounts of energy which desalination plants consume.

Sources: World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organisation; 2018- 2020

Lack of local financial resources require cost-competitive solutions

Any enthusiasm for bridging the gap in the African water and sanitation market requires  sober appreciation for the fact that local financial resources are severely lacking. With a lack of a well-developed and wealthy customer base, utilities are universally public entities that often suffer from a shortage of funding and financial misallocation. Any successful roll out of water management or treatment technologies will succeed best if they are more cost-effective than their competitors, even at the cost of long-term efficiency. The state-led nature of the industry also means that good relationships with local authorities will be key. As liquidity dries up in the present economic climate, governments may look to smaller water management systems that handle local water and sanitation needs rather than national and regional scale revamps.

Poor customer buying power necessitates private-public partnerships

Across Africa, water utility performance is generally weak, with a few exceptions. When looking at financial, operational and customer performance, utilities in Africa are performing below global benchmarks. One of the major limits to performance is cost, with higher operational and maintenance costs of water production reflecting in lower utility performance. It is important to note that though water tariffs are driven by operational and maintenance fees, these fixed costs in the African water sector are considerably higher. Consumer uptake in regularly paying for water and sanitation services is also underdeveloped given that constant water supply is limited to less than 24 hours per day in various places on the continent. Hence, even though tariffs are not necessarily low, the negligible fees paid for low consumption levels in Africa provide utilities with a relatively weak revenue basis. With these factors in mind, investment in water utilities needs to be both technically and economically sound. Due to inadequate government funding, a key opportunity is present in terms of collaboration between public and private entities. Investments through such partnerships could affect underperforming water utilities positively, ensuring better financial, operational and customer performance.


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