Water is pivotal to our development as a people, and in Africa it will be the defining resource in our shared urban future. How we respond to the multiple water challenges and the way we manage water is what will determine how and where we live, our economic successes and failures, and our development paths.
Cities worldwide are facing severe physical, social environmental and economic impacts due to climate change. These are anticipated to be felt with greater intensity in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, in the near future. Coupled with this, cities in Africa also need to plan for increasing populations, rapid urbanisation and the rising demand for more infrastructure.
The impact of climate change on water resources and infrastructure is particularly profound. It is well recognised that freshwater is linked to all aspects of human development and wellbeing. Its availability is the single largest major natural limit to economic growth, given that all other sectors are dependent on its secure supply. Water resources are globally scarce and cities are having to resort to extreme measures to establish water security.
To put this in context, sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of water stressed countries of any region, with only 9% of global freshwater resources being located in Africa. In addition, a report from the World Bank shows that in Africa, water demand is increasing at a higher rate than population growth.
If we look at service delivery, figures show that nearly half of all people using unimproved drinking water sources live in sub-Saharan Africa, and that around 70% of people in this region do not have access to toilets. Cities in Africa therefore need to plan for rising demands for more infrastructure in the context of increasing populations and rapid urbanisation. In fact, it is estimated that roughly half of the urban infrastructure needed to supply the needs of Africa’s cities by 2035 has yet to be built.
Superimposed on these existing scarcities and supply challenges are the impacts of current climate variability and climate change. There is growing realisation that the impacts of climate change in Africa will be experienced through floods, droughts and extreme weather events, with very direct and potentially severe socio-economic impacts. This is translating into recognition that cities need to adopt integrated and innovative water management strategies. To do this cities need access to reliable data, especially at the city and local level across our continent, in order to make informed decisions and to design integrated strategies that include climate change in planning for water supply.
A sustainable and secure supply of water can act as a catalyst to unlock Africa’s development potential. It is in this context that some of the cities best prepared for these changes are the ones who follow precautionary or no-regrets approaches. Cities can actively move towards being water-wise cities by doing the following:
- They can lead their city administrations well, driving changed innovation, connecting with other forward-thinking city leaders around the world, understanding that cities are powerful incubators and drivers for change, that cities are where development solutions will need to be found and implemented, fast and at unprecedented scale;
- They can plan and prepare, unpacking and understanding their risks – including those related to water, food, climate, natural resources and the corresponding interlinkages with each other and urbanisation, economic development and human well-being;
- They can include communities and partners in mapping and planning their cities so that they can move away from unplanned development and decouple water use from their local growth and development strategies;
- They can develop robust and integrated local development plans with their communities, sharing a vision for a sustainable, climate resilient future; and
- They can ensure that water management is central to planning, understanding that water is essential for development.
Water will be the defining resource in our urban future as it will determine how and where we live, our economic successes and failures, and our growth. Cities across Africa can mark a choice to develop smartly, to harness innate innovation and to turn water challenges into water opportunities.
This blog was written by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability-Africa
For more on ICLEI’s work on water and climate go to the website, or follow ICLEI on Twitter @ICLEIAfrica. More information on water and sanitation challenges in African cities can be found in the Water for Cities booklet.
 Tran, M., Koncagul, E., and Connor, R., 2016. The United Nations World Development Report 2016: Water and Jobs. Facts and Figures. Available at: unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002440/244041e.pdf
 Jacobsen, M., Webster, M., & Vairavamoorthy, K. 2013. The Future of Water in African Cities: Why Waste Water?. Directions in development; environment and sustainable development. Washington, DC: World Bank, Available at: http://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/11964
 UNICEF and World Health Organisation. 2015. Progress on sanitation and drinking water – 2015 update and assessment. Available at: files.unicef.org/publications/files/Progress_on_Sanitation_and_Drinking_Water_2015_Update_.pdf
 WaterAid. 2015. It’s No Joke: The State of the World’s Toilets 2015. Available at: www.wateraid.org / ̴/media/Publications/Its_No_Joke_2015_the_state_of_the_worlds_toilets.pdf
 UNWater. 2017. The United Nations Water Development Report 2017: Facts and Figures. Wastewater the Untapped Resource. Available at: unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002475/247553e.pdf