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Water Crisis in African Cities

On the occasion of World Water Day UN-HABITAT FEATURES presents an article about the impending water crisis in African Cities.
On the occasion of World Water Day UN-HABITAT FEATURES presents an article
about the impending water crisis in African Cities.

Nairobi, 20 March 2002.
Lisa Ochola, a typical Nairobi teenager, who was a youth representative to the second World Water Forum at The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2000, told the world that her family does not get running water, sometimes for months.
During these periods, she said she makes do with a glass of water for her personal hygiene. To drive home the point about the degree of water scarcity in Nairobi, she lamented that bottled water, purchased from supermarkets, costs more than petrol.

This is the reality that John Njoroge, who lives a middle class life in Nairobi's Lavington suburb has to face as he spends 10,000 Kenya shillings a month, approximately 128 United States dollars, for the water needs of his family of five.

In another part of the city, Kibera, one of Africa's largest slums has to deal with the phenomenon of flying toilets whereby faeces is discharged into cellophane bags and flung to the air, and could land anywhere.

Nairobi's water and sanitation crisis worsened in 2000, when a scorching drought forced the authorities to ration water and power supply. As in most African cities, the problem is not so much that bulk treated water is in short supply, but that about 50 per cent of the water is wasted or
unaccounted for.

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, has lamented the deteriorating water situation in human settlements. According to her: "Of all the natural resources available to human beings, water is the most essential for virtually every human activity. Yet as the world's urban population reaches the 3 billion mark, it is distressing to note that the world's one billion urban poor, lack adequate access to water."

UN-HABITAT is increasing its involvement in urban water issues. It started with the innovative programme, Water for African Cities in seven demonstration cities: Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire, Accra (Ghana), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dakar (Senegal), Johannesburg (South Africa), Lusaka (Zambia)
and Nairobi (Kenya). UN-HABITAT has also recently been mandated by the third World Water Forum to play a leading role in raising international awareness on water and cities.

So what is the broader global background and context compelling UN-HABITAT's growing involvement in water and sanitation issues?

The 21st century, which is the beginning of the urban millennium, is also being labelled the "century of water". There is a growing collective concern for water security in this century. The emerging consensus is that an increasing part of this challenge will have to be met in the coming decades in our cities and megacities, where most people will live henceforth, much water will be consumed and most of the pollution will be generated. Sustainability in this new millennium will be largely defined in
our cities, which are the centres of political power, public opinion and the engines of economic growth and technological innovation.

According to Kalyan Ray, Coordinator of the Water for African Cities Programme, the explosive growth of urban centres in the last 25 years or so, which continues unabated, is rapidly depleting previously bountiful fresh water resources. The urban water challenge is taking an ominous
dimension in vast areas of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, where the situation is most precarious. Rapid urbanization, growing populations and development are overwhelming traditional water management practices.

As cities draw upon the surrounding environments for resources, their ecological footprints are expanding rapidly into their hinterlands. Over-abstraction of ground water reserves has reached critical proportions in many large cities. In many regions, intense competition is developing
between cities for shared water resources. With a growing number of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia expected to face water scarcity in the coming years, water could become a catalyst for regional conflicts as oil did in the 1970s.

The urban water crisis has been receiving increasing attention in all international dialogues on water. The red flag was raised in Dublin and Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and subsequently gained momentum in other meetings in Nordwjik in 1994, in Beijing and Istanbul in 1996, in Cape Town in 1997,
and more recently at the second World Water Forum in The Hague in 2000. At most of these meetings, the water crisis in African Cities has been of major concern.

Overall, Africa is urbanizing at a rate of about 5 per cent, the fastest rate in the world. Africa's urban population could jump from 138 million in 1990 to 500 million in 2020, when African cities with a population of more than one million will accommodate almost 200 million people. In water terms, a 1990 survey of 29 sub-Saharan African countries revealed that 8 were suffering from water stress or water scarcity. By 2025, this number is expected to increase to 20 out of 29.

Lagos, for example, the commercial centre of Africa's most populous country, is a city with a current population of almost 14 million, about half that of Kenya and larger than most African countries. It is the most populous city in Africa and Europe, the sixth in the world, and could jump to number three in the world in another 20 years. This would require expanding water access and provision of other basic services and infrastructure to several million more inhabitants. As in many other African countries, Lagos is a city on the verge of a water crisis.

Indeed the urbanization indicators for Africa are frightening and call for urgent remedial action from all stakeholders, including local, provincial as well as national authorities, the civil and private sectors, and the international community.

Largely prompted by the Cape Town meeting of African ministers in 1997, the Water for African Cities Programme is focusing on water demand management, control of water pollution and awareness creation activities. It aims at improving water resources management in African cities, through establishment of early warning systems and catchment management to protect freshwater from pollution. An essential component of this programme is education, information exchange, capacity building and training to boost water awareness.

Changes are already being noticed. City managers from Addis Ababa have observed a favourable change in attitude by policy makers in favour of water demand management. Lusaka has experienced a reduction in water loss and inefficient usage of water from 80 to 45 per cent, since 2000. Dakar
has evolved practical ways of improving water management and introduced early warning mechanisms to control water pollution in the Lac de Guiers.
In the Accra Tema Metropolitan Area, a community-based and integrated planning approach is being employed to tackle water pollution in the Densu River.

If future generations like Nairobi's Lisa Ochola are not to suffer from the mistakes we make today, we must listen to the words of Professor Kader Asmal, 2000 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, former Minister of Water and presently Minister of Education, Republic of South Africa:

" We cannot limp into the 20th century with a business-as-usual approach to water management in megacities. We need a realistic assessment of the ability to manage water in specific circumstances. We need boldness. We need an unflinching commitment to equity. We need political courage. We
need research and education to play their roles in shaping how we mould a package that is most likely to achieve long-term equity and efficiency. And finally, we need national and international collaboration and understanding that achieving sustainability in water management is in the long-term
security of us all."

This UN-HABITAT Feature was written by Yima Sen, Public Awareness and
Information Specialist, UN-HABITAT. Please feel free to publish this
article provided UN-HABITAT Features is given credit.

For further information, please contact:
Mr. Sharad Shankardass, Spokesperson, or Ms. Zahra Hassan, Press & Media
Liaison, Press & Media Relations Unit; Tel: (254 2) 623153/623151/623136, Fax: (254
2) 624060,
E-mail:, Website:

Wednesday 20 Mar 2002
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