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Concrete Desert: African Cities in Urgent Water Crisis

As Cape Town’s water crisis continues to keep the world focused on the Mother City, several other African cities are staring at a similar fate. These cities will inevitably run out of water if the threat is not dealt with urgently.

Just last week, Abuja, Nigeria’s capital and one of the cities in question played host to a two-day International Conference on Lake Chad between February 26th and 28th. The conference’s goal was to find workable solutions towards saving Lake Chad whose surface area has shrunk to a paltry 1,500km2 from 26,000km2 in 1963. One of the solutions being considered is to recharge the drying lake using water transferred from the Congo River. Nearly 40 million people from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic rely on Lake Chad for their livelihoods. The United Nations Environmental Programme attributes the rapid reduction of the lake to extended drought, over use of the water and impact of climate change. The image of just how far water has receded from the banks of lake Chad offers a glimpse into a future without water that is scary, to say the least.

The same factors at play with Lake Chad have largely contributed to perennial water scarcity in many parts of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Among these is Kangemi, one of the most congested suburban areas of Nairobi’s metropolitan area, where I live.

Ever since I moved there in 2016 to be near my place of work, I get water only once a week. Over one hundred people and I rely on one tap located within our residence. To avoid being jostled by my fellow tenants, I usually wake up at 4am or wait until very late at night when everyone has slept to draw this precious commodity. Sometimes I get home late from work only to find a dry tap, the water having been depleted by my fellow tenants earlier in the day. That leaves me with no choice but to buy water from vendors at twenty Kenya shillings per twenty litre container. Prices can go as high as fifty Kenya shillings or more depending on water availability. Over time, just like many other residents of Nairobi, I have become used to getting water once every week, whether I like it or not.

The persistent water shortage in Nairobi is traceable to a prolonged dry spell caused by insufficient rainfall and increased human activity in water catchment areas. This in turn has impacted the levels of water reservoirs from where the city gets its water. The most notable is Thika dam which has a capacity of seventy million cubic meters and supplies eighty four per cent of the water consumed in Nairobi. (For context, one cubic meter of water is equivalent to one thousand litres of water, or four thousand glasses of water). As at January 2018, the dam’s storage stood at thirty four million cubic meters, slightly less than half its capacity. But even if the reservoir was full, there would still be a shortfall in water supply of about two hundred and fifty thousand cubic meters according to the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company.

The daily supply ranges at five hundred thousand cubic meters against a demand of approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand cubic meters. This is despite the existence of three other water sources that Nairobi depends on; the Ruiru dam, Kikuyu springs and the Sasumua dam. With the country’s population projected to have risen to almost 60 million people from its current estimated population of forty five million people over the next seven years, it is safe to assume that there will be a lot more dry taps in Nairobi.

Water scarcity in urban areas truly is a current African problem. Accra, Ghana’s capital, is home to 2.27 million people.

For years, the Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL) has been rationing water supply to Accra and other parts of the country owing to the drying up of open water sources due to a lack of rainfall. Last month, GWCL warned that the city could experience acute water shortages in the near future even with the waterworks operating at their highest capacity. “We would still have a deficit of 136, 382 cubic meters a day,” stated Charles Brobbey, the Chief Manager of Accra Production at GWCL. There have been talks over the need to acquire a new water treatment plant with the capacity to treat and supply 181,843 cubic meters a day. The plant will cost $300 million.

“Filthy water cannot be washed.”

At the moment, Accra relies on Kpong and Weija water treatment plants which supply 345,502 cubic meters and 181,844 cubic meters respectively each day against a daily demand of 681,914 cubic meters. Aside from the dry season, human encroachment around Weija dam – the main source of water for Accra – is to blame for the decreasing supply to the city. Commercial activities at the dam go on unabated while dumping of industrial and domestic waste is common, according to the Daily Graphic, a state owned daily newspaper. This has consistently pushed upwards the cost of treating the contaminated water over the years, perhaps affirming the wisdom in the West African proverb, “Filthy water cannot be washed.” Multiple attempts by GWCL to deploy security personnel at the dam have failed.

The conventional wisdom in that saying doesn’t carry in Namibia though. In Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, water shortages have long persisted, prompting the authorities to turn to technology to counter the city’s problem. Notably, two deserts flank Namibia – Kalahari Desert in the east and Namib Desert in the west – making it one of the most arid countries in the world.

The City of Windhoek with a population of nearly 400,000 gets its water from the Von Bach, Omatako and Swakoppoort dams. However the supply is far from sufficient. Other sources include boreholes and the New Goreangab Water Reclamation Plant, which turns municipal wastewater into potable water. The severe 2015/2016 droughts necessitated a requirement to all water users in central Namibia to cut down their usage by up to 30 percent. The City of Windhoek then raised the figure to 40 per cent but residents did not meet both targets. Before the restrictions were effected, the daily demand for water averaged at 81,000 cubic meters. The water shortage was so severe that the Coca-Cola Namibia Bottling Company was forced to halt production. As at 21st November 2016, Swakoppoort dam which can hold 63.4 million cubic meters was 6.5 per cent full, Von Bach whose full capacity is 48.5 million cubic meters stood at 11.6 per cent while Omatako dam which can store 43.5 million cubic meters was empty.

Last year, the City of Windhoek maintained restrictions on water use notwithstanding the increase in dam levels following a rainy season. The city’s Chief Executive Officer Robert Kahimise told journalists that although the rains had averted a water crisis, the impact of the water shortage had only been delayed. “The fast pace of urbanization has compounded the city’s water woes,” he said. Namibia has also been desalinating seawater to shore up the growing water shortage gap. Through the Areva desalination plant – the first large desalination plant in Sub-Saharan Africa – Namibia serves the water demands of the center of Namib Desert and the towns of Swakopmund, Arandis and Walvis Bay.

Desalination of seawater has been touted as one of the strategies Cape Town can curb its water crisis. But this comes at a high financial and environmental cost.

Before desalination takes place, seawater has to be cleaned using chemicals, which include hydrochloric acid, chlorine and hydrogen peroxide. These can be used only for a limited amount of time beyond which they are discarded to the environment. These chemicals may end up back into the ocean according to Cliff Nyaga, a researcher with the Water Programme at Oxford University.

After desalination, brine – a bi-product of the process – is sometimes pumped back into ocean by desalination plants. Its high saturation of salt poses a serious threat to animal and plant life just like the cleaning chemicals. The cost of building a desalination plant can range from $300 million to $2.9 billion depending on the location. This doesn’t include energy costs, which make up one-third to one-half of the total cost of production.

Outside the African context, other parts of the world seem to be hurtling towards a global water crisis.

In 2015, São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city faced its worst water crisis in 80 years. Millions of residents had to go for days without water in an unprecedented predicament whose origin, experts said, transcended the then prevailing drought to include high population growth, deforestation and destruction of surrounding wetlands, leaky water systems and pollution of water sources.

Brazil has the largest share of fresh water in the world, accounting for 12-16 per cent.

In Beijing, China, 39.9 per cent of its water is so polluted that it is essentially functionless according to Greenpeace, an international organization that confronts systems, which threaten the environment.

Other major world cities that may run out of water in the coming years include Bangalore, Jakarta, London, and Mexico.

Editoral cartoon by Igah

On 6th June 2017, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told a Security Council meeting that, “By 2050 at least one in four people will live in a country where the lack of fresh water is chronic or recurrent” and that “Water, peace and security are inextricably linked.”

A report by 2030 Water Resources Group, a consortium of private sector companies and institutions, however notes that the earth is not running out of water despite the depletion of water courses, glaciers and aquifers in many regions. “The problem, rather, is that our societies are doing a poor job of managing these water resources,” states the report entitled Charting Our Water Future published in 2009.

It focuses on a four-step approach to achieving water resource security through effective management. The first step entails quantifying “the impact of economic and social growth on the use of a country’s water resources” and assessing “whether the resources delivered by the country’s existing infrastructure are capable of supporting its projected future water demand.” The second step involves describing “the financial costs and requirements of meeting future water demands” while the third calls for a comparison between “different scenarios of growth at a country level, involving different intensities of water use and different production patterns, to understand what trade-offs might need to be made (for example, reducing the cultivation of water-intensive crops in order to support urban and industrial growth) to achieve water security.” The fourth step describes “the implications for stakeholders and policymakers by quantifying the barriers to adoption and the impact policy levers can have on them, and for private sector by identifying opportunities for action where businesses can deploy resources and capabilities.”

“Unless local, national and global communities come together and dramatically improve the way we envision and manage water, there will be many more hungry villages and degraded environments—and economic development itself will be put at risk in many countries,” states Willem Alexander, former Chairman of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, in the report. He is currently the King of the Netherlands.

Considering that water shortage may soon be a daily reality for majority of the world’s population, there is need for governments, organizations and individuals to institute efficient water management systems. It will also be necessary for the inhabitants of planet earth to personally shoulder the responsibility of conserving the environment and protecting water sources. My neighbours and I are quickly learning this lesson, or at least, we’re debating it – around our water tap that is drier more often than it is wet. Never has the African proverb “Water is colorless and tasteless but you can live on it longer than eating food” been more relevant to us.

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About the Author
Dennis Mbae is a reporter at Africa Uncensored. He is passionate about reporting on issues that impact the lives of ordinary people through TV stories and in-depth news articles. He holds a BA in Journalism from Maseno University.
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