WaterAid: 'Southern Africa under severe water stress'

Globally, 60 percent of people don't have enough clean water, and climate change is making the situation worse. Chilufya Chileshe from WaterAid explains why southern Africa is particularly vulnerable.

DW: Water scarcity is a global issue. How does it affect countries in southern Africa?

Nature and Environment | 16.11.2018

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.

Nature and Environment | 23.10.2018

Do people underestimate the impact of water issues on communities?

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Eco Africa | 05.11.2018

Improving access to clean water in Madagascar

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.

Read more: Water and climate change: 'Era of stable abundance is over'

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.

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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.

Dirty water and medical equipment at a health center in Mozambique

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.

Women and girls are often suffer most when water is in short supply

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.  

South Africa: Cape Town's water crisis

Rain welcome

Another day of blue skies in Cape Town, where low rainfall and decreasing dam levels have left the city facing a severe water crisis. Strict water restrictions are in place, but the city may run out of water by April 2018.

South Africa: Cape Town's water crisis

Every drop counts

A resident installs a rainwater tank at this property in central Cape Town. If the taps run dry, each citizen will be allocated 25 liters (approximately 7 gallons) of drinking water per day at demarcated collection points throughout the city.

South Africa: Cape Town's water crisis

All dried up

The formerly green lawns on the Sea Point promenade are now covered with dry grass. Since mid 2017 there has been a prohibition on using drinking water for irrigation. To save groundwater reserves the city now also strictly discourages the use of boreholes to water lawns and gardens.

South Africa: Cape Town's water crisis

Businesses get creative

This car wash in the suburb of Sunset Beach uses recycled grey water, stored in a tank, to clean customers' cars. Under the current restrictions commercial properties must reduce their water usage by 45 percent compared to 2015 or face fines.

South Africa: Cape Town's water crisis

High demand for water tanks

Outside a large home improvement store in the suburb of Table View, the few remaining water tanks are marked as sold. Water usage is limited to 87 liters per person per day. With "Day Zero" looming, stores cannot keep up with the demand for water tanks and canisters.

South Africa: Cape Town's water crisis

Pools filled with seawater

The public swimming pool at the Sea Point promenade is still up and running. The four pools have been filled with treated seawater from the Atlantic Ocean. To save fresh water the operators have closed the showers.

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