Water Crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Uyen Nguyen – Correspondent

In Kenya’s Northern Rift Valley, Sabina Riwo, a 23-year-old mother of three, has gone to the river nearly every day to fetch water since the age of seven. Water is part of every aspect of Sabina’s day. When she is not using water, she walks a four-mile round-trip to get water.

Sabina makes this trip twice a day. She weighs about 100 pounds. The water on her back weighs 70 pounds.

“They get backache when they [carry water]. The pain just builds and builds as they go, and it takes a while for their back to stop aching when they get home,” said World Vision journalist Kari Costanza.

Sabina uses about 13 gallons of water, which equals an average U.S. five-minute shower, a day for everything: cooking, drinking, bathing, and cleaning.

“Access to water is a vital right for the dignity of every human being,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “Yet, billions of people are still deprived of this right.”

“The water itself is an obstacle. It’s an obstacle to a girl’s future because they have to get water all the time. They are not getting an education. They are going to the river,” Costanza said.

Access to safe, affordable, and reliable drinking water and sanitation services are basic human rights recognized by the United Nations (UN) and Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation. However, access to this essential resource in Africa is not yet universal. 

“Water is fundamental to life,” said Chief Executive of WaterAid UK Tim Wainwright. “It underlies your health, your ability to have an education.”

According to the African Development Bank (AFDB), around 40% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lack access to safe drinking water sources, and 69% do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. Low access to sanitation and water supply are the root causes of many diseases affecting the continent.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), contaminated water can transmit diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. The WHO estimates that contaminated drinking water alone causes 502,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.

“Water is not just scarce here. It’s really really yucky,” said Costanza. “This [contaminated] water is a big part of the reason they go to the health clinic. This kind of water is just a breeding ground for typhoid and cholera and waterborne diseases that cause diarrhea.”

“There are 6,000 people that are going to die today because they don’t have access to safe drinking water,” said CEO of WATERisLIFE Ken Surritte. “That’s the case every day, 365 days a year.”

AFDB estimates Africa’s population to grow to approximately 1.34 billion people by 2025. With uneven distribution of water across the continent, more than 25 African countries are expected to be subject to water scarcity or water stress.

The year 2025 is around the corner, approximately 31 months starting June 2022.

“There is great human suffering behind these statistics, which in the end reveal a silent form of injustice that cannot be ignored,” former Managing Director of International Monetary Fund Michel Camdessus said.

“I’ve always thought about water in terms of disease. How if you don’t have water or if you have bad water, you get sick and you can die,” Costanza said. “But, I have a new understanding of water now, it’s not just about disease.”

“If you don’t have water it robs you of time, it robs you of education,” Costanza added.

UNICEF estimates that 3.36 million children and 13.54 million adult females are responsible for water collection in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to World Vision, 6 kilometers (6K) or 3.7 miles is the average round-trip distance that children and women in sub-Saharan African countries walk to fetch water: water that is often contaminated with life-threatening diseases. 

6K is 15 laps around a football field, five times the number of steps to climb New York’s 102-story Empire State Building, or a round trip from the Lincoln Memorial to the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Most people can walk a mile in 15 to 22 minutes on flat, smooth pavement with proper shoes. We can walk 6K in about an hour and 15 minutes. Runners can cover the same distance in half that time.

Women and children in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to proper shoes or smooth pavement. Moms and their children walk the 6K either barefoot or in rubber sandals for more than an hour to collect water. They often make that trip more than once a day.

“For women and children, walking long distances is dangerous,” said Professor Maria Rusca of the University of Manchester, UK. “Traveling to fetch water increases their risk of dropping out of school, disease, child marriage, and sexual abuse.”

Thorn trees, hills, rocks, and gullies often are the obstacles. There may be snakes and bees or people who want to rob them.

“There may be men waiting at the rivers to kidnap young girls so these girls can fetch them water, or rob and attack women because they are defenseless. Water scarcity not only brings diseases to the people of sub-Saharan Africa but also traumatizes and threatens their lives,” Rusca added.

UNICEF’s global head of water, sanitation, and hygiene Sanjay Wijesekera says women and girls spend 200 million hours daily collecting water. “Just imagine: 200 million hours is 8.3 million days, or over 22,800 years. It would be as if a woman started with her empty bucket in the Stone Age and didn’t arrive home with water until 2016. Think how much the world has advanced in that time. Think how much women could have achieved in that time.”

Costanza says Sabina’s dream for her children is that they would all get an education. “The education she never got because she had to fetch water. Sabina didn’t get to go to school, and now she has to go four hours every day to get this water. Her dream is just to be able to take a bath at her house.

“My wish for Sabina is that water will come close to her, so she won’t be chained to that river anymore, and she’ll get back the time that she deserves and needs to have a full life,” Costanza added.

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