Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is critical to maintaining and improving health. In general, poor water supply and sanitation is a major public health problem throughout Africa. More than 50 per cent of people in Africa suffer from water-related diseases such as cholera and infant diarrhoea (UN Millennium Project 2006). Improvements in safe water supply, and in particular in hygiene and sanitation, can reduce the incidence of cholera, diarrhoea as well as the number of deaths of children under five. Poor access to safe water and sanitation has been described as “the silent humanitarian crisis that each day takes thousands of lives” (UN Millennium Project 2005b). Conventional wisdom suggests that no single type of intervention has had greater overall impact upon economic development and public health than the provision of safe drinking water and proper sanitation. “Expanding water and sanitation coverage is not rocket science. It requires neither colossal sums of money nor breakthrough scientific discoveries and dramatic technological advances” (UN Millennium Project 2005b).

Freshwater resources have been described as life itself because they drive human life and activities, including agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, fisheries, and forestry, and they sustain the environment and biodiversity. Access to water has also been recognized as a fundamental human right. Water availability and access impacts on all three components of sustainable development: environment, society and economy. For example, about 180 million people in Africa – pastoralists, farmers and other land users – live on fragile drylands where growing numbers compete for water and land. More than 20 per cent of the regional population’s protein comes from freshwater fisheries (Curtin 2003).

Despite their centrality to human and environmental vulnerability, and their potential to enhance the resilience of both, freshwater resources are not evenly distributed across the region. Some sub-regions and countries, for example Central Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have more resources. Others, such as North Africa and Egypt, have less. Some of the sub-regions receive more than adequate rains, leading to devastating floods, while others are prone to severe droughts, impacting food production and exacerbating poverty and hunger.

In addition to issues related to access, availability and distribution, increasing pollution is presenting a serious challenge. Freshwater resources are also increasingly being polluted through human activity such as agriculture and mining. This compounds human health and well-being issues. At the beginning of 2005, a total of 280 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) had no access to safe water and 454 million had no access to improved sanitation (UN Millennium Project 2005a). Projections show that if current trends continue, by 2025 about 67 per cent of the world’s population will be facing serious water shortages or have no water all (UN 2002).

In the interest of sustainable water use, Africa has to devise effective ways of dealing with the pertinent economic, social and ecological challenges. The economic challenge pertains to maximizing social and economic benefits from available water resources, while ensuring that basic human needs are met and the environment is protected. The growing competition between water users has to be effectively managed, and water disputes and conflicts avoided or adequately resolved. The social challenge is to ensure equitable access to safe water. This should be complemented by actions focused on reducing the vulnerability of poor people (especially women and children) to health hazards associated with water pollution. Meeting this objective requires that sufficient and priority attention is paid to the rehabilitation of water-supply systems destroyed by conflict or water-related disasters (floods, droughts). And, the ecological challenge is to ensure sustainable water use in terms of protecting the quality and quantity of the water resource in order to safeguard the needs of future generations.

Figure 3: Water withdrawals by country These challenges become even more complex given that much of Africa’s freshwater resources are transboundary. Africa has 50 significant international river basins, each of which is shared by two or more countries. For 14 countries their entire territory is within international river basins. There are at least 83 river and lake basins shared by a number of countries: 11 in Northern Africa; 29 in Western Africa; 8 in Central Africa; 20 in Eastern Africa; and 15 in Southern Africa (Giordano and Wolf 2003). Africa has a number of significant lakes. Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake and the second largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world. With the potential negative impacts of climate change on the region’s water resources, freshwater stress and scarcity are likely to continue to be major issues.

Policies and legislative and institutional responses at the national and sub-regional levels have been adopted to deal with these challenges. Cooperation, decentralization, privatization and integrated water resources management (IWRM) have been strategies adopted in pursuit of sustainable water resources management. The adoption of cooperative approaches, such as establishing river basin organizations and action plans, have been critical in moving towards a more sustainable, fairer and equitable regime for transboundary management. River basin organizations, over the years, have encountered serious problems, including: lack of strong, sustained political commitment from member states; overly-ambitious programming and lack of focus on priority areas; administrative, managerial, technical, and financial problems; and political instability and civil strife (ECA 2004).