DW: Water scarcity is a global issue. How does it affect countries in southern Africa?
Chilufya Chileshe: It is predicted that by 2050, 5 billion people will live in areas where they will face water shortages for at least one month a year. Currently, for 844 million people in the world face the reality of not having access to clean water all year around.
Throughout southern Africa the water security issue is increasingly severe. For example, in Mozambique 14.8 million people are without water and over 2,500 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases.
Globally, 60 percent of the world are living under water stress and this is set to increase, especially in southern Africa over the next few decades, partially because of the severe weather brought by climate change, but also because of lifestyle changes, with more people moving to cities, great industrial pollution, demands from agriculture, and people simply using more water.
Do people underestimate the impact of water issues on communities?
Unfortunately, in the absence of crisis, the centrality of water in improving quality of life, ending poverty, and improving health and education outcomes gets overlooked. Governments and communities often relegate water to the bottom of their priority list.
It often takes a crisis, such as we have seen in southern Africa in the past months — looming water shortages in Cape Town and Maputo, cholera outbreaks in Lusaka, Harare and Lilongwe, and the plague in Madagascar — to firmly remind people that water has a great impact on our lives. We need to ensure we constantly plan for, and ensure, equitable access to safe water.
Which social groups are hit hardest?
This depends on the country. However, what we see is that women and girls, who are often caregivers and managers of households, tend to be affected the most.
The long hours they have to walk to collect water has been documented as an economic waste of resources. Women will spend the equivalent of two and half months a year just to get the minimum amount of water to stay healthy. Women also need water for more reasons than men, such in the management of menstruation.
Rural communities are particularly affected where reliable access to safe water is scarce. People are forced to live their lives around the need to find water. They may be forced to drink unsafe water, which puts their health at risk, in turn [affecting] whether they are able to work, care for their families and earn a living.
What are the main drivers of water stress in southern Africa?
Poor planning and management of water resources, climate variability and inadequate investment in the search for solutions are the main drivers. In some instances, increasing inequality means that some have access to water at levels that disadvantage poorer communities.
How much collaboration is there in finding solutions?
In southern Africa, WaterAid is working closely with governments and decision-making bodies to support moves to increase access to good quality water, sanitation and hygiene. We are also working with communities to build resilience to water stress and climate change. For example, earlier this year WaterAid supported the government of Mozambique as it tackled the regional drought.
Overall, collaboration is happening but could be intensified, particularly with the private sector.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
The competition for development financing is tough in developing countries. Poverty, inadequate economic growth, corruption and wastage of resources are also challenges. It also often means that the progress we are able to influence by way of policy reform does not result in implementation. This is a frustration we are constantly trying to overcome.
With climate change set to intensify water problems, is it possible to feel optimistic about the future?
Climate change is indeed making water sources increasingly unreliable as flooding contaminates previously drinkable water.
The problem is often not a physical lack of water: Some places have significant groundwater reserves thanks to abundant rainfall. However, thirsty communities cannot get sufficient clean water because of a lack of investment in the infrastructure needed to deliver a reliable supply, indicating a possible lack of political prioritization.
Resilience, sustainability and adaptability are key. My optimism lies in the fact that these aspects are within human control and we continue the fight because we believe governments can do the right thing.
Chilufya Chileshe is WaterAid's regional advocacy manager for southern Africa. This interview was conducted by Holly Young. It has been edited for length and clarity.