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Solving Africa’s water and sanitation crisis will unlock opportunities – Mtchera Chirwa


Water— the most abundant resource on earth — is scarce in many African communities. And this scarcity is more man-made than natural. For instance, Nigeria has no actual desert areas, save a connection to the Sahel. Yet, pipe-borne water accounts for less than 10% of the domestic water supply to Nigerian households. In Ghana, sachet water is the main source of drinking water for most households, with only 4.8% relying on pipe-borne water.

In this interview with Ventures Africa, Mtchera Chirwa, Coordinator of the African Water Facility (AWF), uncovers the dire situation of Africa’s water and sanitation crisis, the opportunities the continent is missing out on and what it will take to solve this problem.

VA: What is the current state of water and sanitation in Africa?

MC: Water and sanitation in Africa are in a crisis. It is really in a bad state. Africa has a lot of water resources, as we know: 63 rivers shared between countries, a lot of freshwater access and groundwater access. But the reality is that we have not developed the resources enough to make water available in enough quantities and in an accessible manner to Africans for various purposes. As we speak, more than 400 million Africans have no access to clean water and more than 700 million Africans have no access to sanitation, which is dire.

These problems also contribute to the dramatic rural-urban migration happening in Africa. But even that won’t solve it. Every year about 10 million Africans who are moving to urban areas have no access to clean water and sanitation.

The reality is that the amount of investment we’re financing into the sector is not at a pace that will close this gap in a foreseeable number of years. So, we are behind and we cannot continue business as usual if we are to meet those 20-30-year targets, or at least make progress towards reaching them.

How is this crisis influencing Africa’s development trajectory at the moment at the moment?

In several ways. Only about 11% of Africa’s hydropower protection has been exploited, so our inability to develop water resources is hindering the energy sector. That in turn affects industrialisation and economic development.

Also, it’s affecting food production. We have only reached 32% of our land irrigation potential. That diminishes the quality of health and nutrition, as well as Africa’s ability to export.

As we know, the lack of access to sustainable sanitation serious impact on health. We estimate about $40-50 billion per annum as the impact of underdeveloped sanitation on Africa’s economy. This emanates from the impact of Africa’s water-borne diseases, underage mortality and missed opportunities for the secular sector.

What opportunities will come with improving water and sanitation infrastructure in Africa?

The first and most important one is the opportunity to improve Africa’s quality of life. The more people with access to clean water and sanitation, the healthier our population will be, and the longer people can live and be able to contribute productively to economic development.

Improving water and sanitation will also enable governments to reduce their healthcare budget allocations and put those resources in other productive sectors of the economy.

Improving water access also means we can boost food production and exports. We have seen the impact of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine on the cost of food in Africa and globally. Yet, Africa has a lot of lands that are yet to be developed for irrigation potential. Developing that resource will enable us to produce more food.

I talked about energy. As we know, Africans have no access or poor access to energy, not only for domestic, use but also for industrial production. If we want to industrialise our continent and produce more goods to trade with the rest of the world, energy access is important and water through the huge potential of hydropower generation can enable us to make significant progress. So there are a lot of missed opportunities because of lack of development of water and the more we develop, the more potential we see in scaling our economic development and opportunities in Africa.

What are the main challenges we’re facing in solving our problems with water infrastructure in Africa? Why is the problem so difficult to solve, and what is holding us back from solving our water crisis in Africa?

I think several factors or reasons are holding us back. The primary reason I can cite is an investment because we know from the discussion we’ve had so far that acting on the opportunities requires investments in the sector. So, more investment and more resources are to be channelled towards water sanitation development by the government and also governments creating an environment for investment in the sector by private sectors, investors that will be interested and able to invest in the sector. However, scaling up investment in the sector also requires the development of those investment opportunities. So good, well-defined and structured investment projects enable that investment to happen, that’s where modern facilities come up to support countries to develop good investment projects that will then channel investments. So investment is a key factor. Governments are not allocating enough resources, they can do more.

Governments not taking action as quickly as possible to improve an enabling environment for the private sector to invest in the sector. There are challenges in reforming our governance environment in most countries. Yes, the government has approval but water governance? So, the legal regulatory framework, building and retaining adequate capacity in the key institutions, and managing water sanitation is key to enabling that investment to happen. Managing the existing facilities also contributes because you will agree with me that in most countries/ cities, there is a lot of poor operation and waste. All that impacts on addressing this challenge.

Mtchera Chirwa, Coordinator, African Water Facility

How is the African Water Facility helping to solve these problems; strategies and mechanisms?

The African Water Facility helps countries prepare good projects for investment in the sector. We mobilise financial resources and expertise in partnership with international donors and partners and we channel resources to priority investments identified in all African countries based on the demand approach, so we see if the request from governments and institutions in the countries have identified investment priorities. We help them to prepare studies; environmental, and economic analyses; help them to prepare the design of the investment and also help them to mobilise the investment that is now required to develop or implement the project. So we operate from a very early stage of identifying priorities.

We support governments to identify investment priorities both at national and regional levels just as some of the water resources are shared through transboundary water resources and also in the development aspect through regional cooperation. Right from upstream, find investment sources and priorities, help them to prepare investment plans, develop feasibility studies and technically prepare the project and then help them to mobilise financing downstream from either DFIs in AfDB or other DFIs, That is our role.

In addition to financing project preparation, we also support governance by providing technical assistance and grants to help governance and their tech reforms that are necessary to improve management in the sector and also to build capacity at the institutional level and the technical level, so we provide that support. I talked about investment promotion; so we help them market investment projects to partners and investors who may be interested in investing.

In our current strategy, we also support innovation through what we call catalytic investment. So we identify opportunities in countries and make immediate interventions to improve access to water sanitation where we see that the small investment we provide can catalyse more resources and investments in that innovation. Also, an innovation that can be replicated in other countries.

Is there a way Africa can bridge the financing gap you mentioned over the next few years?

There are several ways. But it starts with better management. avoid wasting resources, investment and infrastructure, and manage them better. Maintenance of existing structure, reducing waste, that’s the first way to do it. So, it’s not only to look at new investments but also to elongate the life and better management of what we have.

Secondly is to increase the level of investment. So from all possible sources, the government must allocate more resources to the sector, and realise that its impact affects almost every other sector of the country. So, I think allocations from the central government must increase to invest more and improve access.

Third is identifying investment opportunities that are attractive to financiers. Linking with institutions like AfDB to design and develop good investment projects that can then be financed by development banks, governments themselves, and private sectors,

Fourth is creating or improving investment conditions for the private sector. Water traditionally is a sector that has the least investment by private sectors when compared to energy and transport and other sectors like that. I think the more we reform the sector to allow more investments from the private sector. Here, we’re not talking about only the large international private sector but also the local and medium-scale private sector in the country which can be helped to expand their services and to build their capacity to have access to finance so that they can expand and improve. All these areas need to be addressed. There is no one solution. We need to approach it in different ways to address this investment gap.

Finally,  innovating financial mechanisms. I talked about public sector investments directly by the government and access to finance from DFIs as well as investment financing for private sectors but also looked at innovative ways where by working with DFIs like the ADB,  countries can access finance from different instruments partners and resources to scale up the Investment levels in f the sector.

I also talked about reforms in improving governance because for investments to happen we need to have a sector that has a regulatory framework and an environment that attracts and enables investment.

The last point is by realising the economic value of water. Again, because water is seen as a social good in a country, we find that the charge for the use of water does not reflect the economic value of producing and maintaining these services. As a result, a lot of the operations are incorporated into the cost and that is not sustainable.  That realisation means that you need to start valuing water at an economic cost to be able to sustain and invest in the longer term. There is a lot of water withdrawal that happens and is not accounted for in the financial sense and that of course leads to a lack of investment.

What projects targeted at solving Africa’s water and sanitation crisis have caught your attention in recent years?

Yes, so innovation is in many different ways. It is quite broad in different areas from water resources development. At that level, improving the life and quality of water, there is innovation there that we are supporting countries to invest in monitoring upstream, using nature-best solutions to restore the success of water, using technology to monitor degradation and therefore enable warming,  and to take actions at the upstream level.

At the water production level, we are seeing development around desalination using seawater. We are looking at a project right now in Egypt that looks to desalinate water. There is a project in Togo where The African Development Bank is helping countries use salt water. The cost of desalination of water is traditionally very expensive but through technology and innovation, the costs are reducing.

Another innovation project we are supporting is in Namibia for recycling wastewater. Traditionally, people in Africa are sensitive to recycled water, especially ones used for domestic purposes and consumption but in Namibia, we are supporting recycling wastewater to be used for Agriculture.

In Morocco, we are discussing with a private company to help farmers who produce milk in the dairy. We are looking to support them in recycling wastewater from the dairy factory to supply drinking water to the farmers for use in their farms

In East Africa, there is a technology that we have supported to improve the management of water points through the use of automated cards,  a technology payment system.

There are many other innovations out there but not all of them are scalable or replicable. However, they provide opportunities to solve a problem in other ways. If some of these approaches have worked in certain countries, then it’s possible to share that knowledge to enable other countries to learn and replicate in their situations.

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