Without water, there can be no human existence. While easy and cheap access to clean water is taken for granted in developed and many developing regions, Africa is still lagging far behind. Few African cities can claim to be able to provide water to all the people who live in them and rural areas fare even worse. An equally important related utility, sanitation, is often ignored but its economic cost to the continent is around $30bn. The cost in terms of poor health, illness and wasted time is almost incalculable.
In this special focus, we examine how the international community and an African country have worked to make water supply both affordable and self-sustaining financially and we also discover that providing sanitation is a good investment in more ways than one.
The water sector is probably the most important industry for any country, yet it receives remarkably little attention. Water supplies are needed for drinking, washing, cooking, irrigating fields, processing, manufacturing and many other activities.
The industrialised world generally takes access to water for granted, while water provision in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa has improved little over the past 30 years. Renewed enthusiasm for Africa’s economic prospects, however, should ensure that investment increases over the next few years.
Probably the biggest debate is over how the sector should be managed. Earlier projects in the 1980s and early 1990s had focused on the provision of sufficient water collection and distribution infrastructure.
However, relatively little effort was put into sustainable management and reinvestment of the new infrastructure, whether through the creation of new water companies, private sector contracts or support for existing state-owned utilities.
During the late 1990s and in the early years of the new millennium, private sector management was mooted as the great solution by the international financial community. State-owned water utilities had largely failed to extend ageing water grids into new suburbs, forcing many people to rely on unsafe supplies. However, several of the high-profile concessions failed because the new operators faced the same problems as their parastatal predecessors: insufficient revenue to fund infrastructural improvements.
At the same time, water supply attracted most of the attention. Dealing with wastewater is a far less attractive option for donors, governments and even many non-governmental organisations, despite the fact that effective sanitation is probably the most important tool in avoiding illness and extending life expectancy.
The sad fact is that water supply projects are simply more attractive for all kinds of investors because of the image of clean water is so much more photogenic than that of toilet waste. This is beginning to change, however, as the new vogue for African urban development starts to incorporate environmental improvements.
The introduction of metering enables utilities to generate more income and encourage careful water use. Some pre-paid water meters have been tried, including in Namibia and South Africa, but the concept has not yet been implemented on a large scale.
However, post-use metering is now becoming a more popular option, including in Senegal. As we discuss later, the World Bank regards the development of the Senegal water sector as a model of PPP in sub-Saharan Africa. Although some private companies have become involved in managing African water and waste-water services, multilateral and donor support is still considered to be a prime source of funding.