Is Africa losing ground in the battle for water and sanitation?

Women draw water from a pump in Tougbo, Ivory Coast, on Jan. 22. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)
Women draw water from a pump in Tougbo, Ivory Coast, on Jan. 22. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)

In March, government, civil society and private-sector leaders gathering for the ninth World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, will try to move the world toward the United Nations’ sixth sustainable development goal: universal access to safe water and sanitation.

With billions of people still lacking these basic necessities, it’s an ambitious goal. The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that the current rate of progress would need to quadruple to meet the 2030 target. According to these agencies, progress is particularly slow in sub-Saharan Africa.

The coronavirus pandemic has added urgency to advocacy for expanding access to clean water needed for hand-washing as an important preventive measure against the virus, as well as other infectious diseases. And climate change is heightening water and sanitation concerns as increasingly frequent storms, floods and droughts threaten access to these critical services.

But will the pandemic and climate change boost clean-water efforts — or divert resources and delay progress? A decade of Afrobarometer data on access to clean water and sanitation in Africa reveals remarkably little progress toward the U.N. targets.

Deteriorating access to clean water

On some indicators, Africa’s water situation actually appears to be worsening, according to Afrobarometer surveys. Results from 48,084 face-to-face interviews in 34 African countries in 2019-2021 show that more than half of Africans have experienced shortages of clean water in the past year, and 1 in 7 have no access to sanitation facilities of any kind. The numbers of people experiencing these privations are growing — and citizens express considerable disappointment with government efforts to address them.

Obtaining clean water is a daily challenge for an increasing number of African households. Across 34 countries, more than half (56 percent) of survey respondents say they went without enough clean water at least once in the year preceding the survey, including 43 percent who suffered this form of poverty “several times,” “many times” or “always.”

Experiences vary widely by country: While fewer than one-fourth of Ghanaians (22 percent) and Moroccans (24 percent) report going without enough water, shortages affected more than three-fourths of citizens in Gabon (79 percent), Guinea (78 percent) and Cameroon (78 percent).

Across 30 countries Afrobarometer has surveyed on these issues for the past decade, the proportion of respondents who experienced water shortages increased from 49 percent to 54 percent. As shown in the figure below, the number who reported experiencing water shortages rose in 18 countries, including jumps of 19 percentage points in Benin, 18 points in Guinea and 15 points in Senegal. Only three countries show significant improvement, with surveys showing that fewer people experienced shortages: Tanzania (a decrease of 23 percentage points), Burkina Faso (down 12 points) and Ghana (down eight points).

How often do households lack enough clean water for daily needs? | 30 countries | 2011-2021. Percentage of respondents who went without enough clean water for home use during the previous year.
How often do households lack enough clean water for daily needs? | 30 countries | 2011-2021. Percentage of respondents who went without enough clean water for home use during the previous year.

Stagnation on sanitation

Afrobarometer surveys also document little progress on broadening access to sanitation. Across 34 countries, one-third (34 percent) of Africans surveyed report having a toilet in their home, and 37 percent use a toilet or latrine elsewhere in their compound. This leaves nearly one-third (29 percent) having to go outside their compound, including 14 percent who say they do not have access to toilet facilities.

Toilets in the home are almost universal in Morocco (95 percent) and Mauritius (93 percent). But a majority of citizens don’t have a toilet or latrine in their home or compound in seven countries: Niger (65 percent), Malawi (59 percent), Uganda (58 percent), Liberia (57 percent), Benin (56 percent), Ghana (53 percent) and Ethiopia (50 percent). Indeed, in Niger, a majority (59 percent) of citizens report having no access to a toilet or latrine.

While access to toilets inside the home increased from 30 percent to 35 percent over the past decade, in some countries, open defecation appears to be on the rise, given an average five-percentage-point rise in the number of people who report having no access to any sanitation facilities, whether inside or outside their compound. As shown in the figure below, 13 of 30 countries have seen increases of five percentage points or more in survey respondents reporting no access to toilets or latrines, while only one country, Namibia, saw a decrease of at least five points.

No access to toilets/latrines | 30 countries | 2011-2021
No access to toilets/latrines | 30 countries | 2011-2021

Africans expect more from government

Under these circumstances, it’s no surprise that water and sanitation are priority issues for Africans. Water supply ranks fifth among the most important problems that people want their governments to address, after unemployment, health, education and infrastructure/roads. Guineans, who experience some of the highest levels of water deprivation, are particularly concerned: Almost two-thirds (65 percent) cite water supply as one of their top three priorities.

In light of these shortcomings in infrastructure and access, only 41 percent of Africans give their government a passing grade on water and sanitation. As the figure below indicates, about two-thirds of survey respondents approve of their government’s performance in Tanzania (67 percent) and Botswana (64 percent) — while fewer than 1 in 4 in Sudan (12 percent), Guinea (15 percent), Gabon (18 percent) and Liberia (22 percent) agree that their government is providing adequate water and sanitation services.

Government performance in providing water and sanitation services | 34 countries | 2019/2021
Government performance in providing water and sanitation services | 34 countries | 2019/2021

Alongside the daily struggles that these survey findings suggest, Africans may find that water crises like those experienced recently in Cape Town, South Africa, and Bouaké, Ivory Coast, also become more frequent. In these cases, governments and development partners showed they can respond effectively in an emergency.

Pressures from the pandemic and from climate change seem likely to strengthen citizens’ demands for action before things get to that point.

Daniel Armah-Attoh is the Afrobarometer project manager for Anglophone West Africa and North Africa.

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