Africa’s freshwater system holds a vast array of opportunities. In 2005, only about 5 per cent of the development potential of these resources – irrigation, industry, tourism and hydropower – was expected to be utilized (ECA and others 2000). Freshwater resources can potentially be used to improve human well-being through meeting urgent water needs in the areas of health and food security.


Box 2: Understanding how a wetland functions

Wetlands tend to be found where water is spread out and the speed of water flow is reduced. Slow water-flow increases the entrapment of sediment in the wetland and also leads to saturation of the soils for extended periods, creating anoxic conditions below the surface (the “bad egg” smell in some wetland sediments). The saturated conditions create a favourable environment for certain plants and micro-organisms to grow. The waterlogged state of the soil slows down the decomposition of the soil’s organic matter and provides a suitable environment for many chemical processes that help to trap pollutants like heavy metals.

The special way in which wetlands function provides several benefits to people. One important ecosystem service is the removal of nutrients and other pollutants. Wetlands purify water by slowing down water flow, supporting abundant plant growth, and creating waterlogged soils which support the activity of soil micro-organisms, especially those occurring in the root zone of plants.

Source: Dickens and others 2003

Freshwater is an integral part of the environment and its temporal and spatial availability is indispensable to the efficient functioning of wetlands and lakes, including coastal beneficiaries such as mangrove forests and other coastal wetlands.

The largest inland wetlands include: the Congo River swamps, the Sudd in the upper Nile, the Lake Victoria basin, the Chad basin, the Okavango Delta, the Bangweulu swamps, the Lake Tanganyika basin, the Lake Malawi/Nyasa/Niassa basin, and the floodplains and deltas of the Niger and Zambezi rivers (NEPAD 2003).

These wetlands provide a number of environmental goods-and-services including flood control, erosion control, and toxicant removal and/or retention. (see Box 2). The lakes are a habitat for major sources of nutritional supplies of fish, which are mostly treated as open access resources for subsistence and commercial use. Wetlands and freshwater bodies are associated with rare varieties of plant and animal species. In addition to this rich biodiversity they are also an important source of food. Further, they may serve as important transport waterways and are important areas for tourism, such as the St Lucia Wetlands on South Africa’s east coast which have been declared a World Heritage Site.

Health and well-being

In 2002, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) recognized water as a human right. Clean and safe drinking water for domestic use is widely considered as one of the most urgent water needs. As shown in Figure 3, 51 per cent of rural areas had access to water supply in 2002, compared with 86 per cent in urban areas (WHO and UNICEF 2004).

Figure 3: Water supply and sanitation coverage in rural and urban settings between 1990 and 2002 for AfricaAccess to safe water is a precondition for health and for success in the fight against poverty and hunger. It is crucial for meeting several of the Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) targets (Annex 1 lists and shows progress made towards meeting these targets) including:

  • Target 1: Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day;
  • Target 2: Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger;
  • Target 5: Reduce by two-thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate; and
  • Target 10: Halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Recreation and rest are also important aspects of human well-being. For many rural people, especially children, rivers provide one of the few opportunities for recreation.