I remember, more than sixty years ago, waking up daily early in the morning, and joining other children in the neighbourhood, on a long regular journey of roughly 3.5 miles, with buckets or calabash on our heads, to and from the stream to fetch water. Fetching water was a daily ritual. I fetched water religiously every day before and after school, in support of my parents. Getting to the stream, we would first jump into the stream to swim and bathe. The stream flowing through our village from and to other contiguous villages was polluted with all kinds of debris. We freely or ignorantly contributed to the impurity of the stream by urinating or defecating while swimming. It was fun for us, but we did not know we were causing harm to our health and the health of other villagers who would drink the water we contaminated from our end. We should have known or been warned not to contaminate the stream because that was the only source of water we had then. It was the same stream that we polluted that we drew water for use in cooking and drinking at home. Piped-borehole water was not in vogue. If it existed at all, only the colonial settlers and local elites could afford it.
Another source of drinking water was rainwater. I was born in that part of West Africa blessed with regular rainfall. Whenever there was rain, night or day, we would engage in rainwater harvesting, that is, putting buckets, calabashes, pots and plastic containers outside the house to collect rainwater. To conserve water fetched from the stream, which we considered pure and drinkable then, when it rained, the children in the neighbourhood would be out, running and bathing under the rainwater. That was one way, apart from bathing in the village stream on other days when it was not raining, we took bath before going to school.
We had no idea, neither did our parents know about the health hazards of drinking and bathing with stream and rain water. In the 21st century, with all the resources and knowledge about the dangers to human health caused by drinking and cooking with unclean water, there are still many Africans drinking and cooking with stream and rain water. This article is a plea with African governments and community leaders to recognize safe and clean drinking water as an inalienable human right and to make it accessible to all citizens. I appeal to all discerning Africans: please join me to advocate the right to safe drinking water for all our folks. It is difficult to understand how Africa, almost flooded among the oceans of water, lacks safe and clean drinking water. This is, yet another African paradox—poverty in abundance, to say the least. Water, like other natural resources, is plentiful in Africa, yet, 40% (about 350 million out of an estimated 783 million) people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to clean drinking water.[i] A few countries in the Sahel region, the Horn and Eastern Africa, because of drought, may have reason to complain about lack of water.
Other countries, flanged by oceans and rivers, and blessed with constant rainfall, can do better than they are doing (or not doing) now to provide clean and safe drinking water to their citizens. In most countries in Africa, one does not have to dig too deep into the earth to find water. Pipe drawn water connected to most homes is possible. Unfortunately, because of how the society is organized, only the privileged few have access to clean water because they can afford piped borehole water on their premises. In the rural areas, piped-in water is non-existent in most households. In many countries in other parts of the world, large cities with established municipalities or corporations devolve responsibility on such local bodies to lay down pipes and provide on a regular basis clean and chlorinated water sourced either directly from rivers or through bored tubes wells. A plan needs to be drawn up for providing such facility, wherever feasible, at State expense in the interest of good public health of the general population.
Reasons for shortage of clean drinking water in African countries
There are a few ways to access water in Africa, but most prevalent are: (i) from the stream which, most often than not, are polluted; (ii) rain water (pollution possible through atmosphere), and (iii) borehole technique to draw water from the ground. Most Africans rely on the first two sources of water. The third source is an expensive project for an average African. Unfortunately, clean drinking water, like education, is least budgeted for. It is postulated here that safe drinking water would lead to a healthy population, which in turn would cut down national budget on disease control and management.
Social/Economic benefits of access to clean drinking water
In July 2010, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution recognizing the right of every human being to have access to sufficient water for personal and domestic uses, “which must be safe, acceptable and affordable, and physically accessible.”[ii] Water is an inalienable human right. It not only improves quality of life, but also brings tangible health and economic benefits, including poverty reduction. From economic perspective, improved access to safe drinking water and sanitation has been found to boost economic growth, and contributes to poverty reduction, improvement in health, and education of the population.[iii] Healthy citizens are productive citizens. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in the provision of clean drinking water and sanitation, there is about a nine-dollar long-term benefit in costs averted through disease prevention and productivity gains.[iv]
Providing clean water and sanitation is found to have the potential to lead to increased employment and improvements in education and health of the population. Education is not only vital for the development of human beings, but also instrumental for participating in employment and in other areas of social activities.[v] Thus, inaccessibility to clean sources of water negatively impacts among others, health, education, the ability to work, and the ability to partake in social activities. Young members of the family either fall ill because of drinking impure water or lose days in school because they cannot be in school and at the same time fetching water for their families. This postulate is corroborated by a study of the impact of accessibility of clean water on education in Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Tanzania, where the researches found that availability of clean water and sanitation increased school enrolment and reduced school absenteeism and drop-out rates.[vi] Water is life; it keeps children of school age from contracting water-borne diseases.
Consequences of lack of clean drinking water
Health implications associated with lack of clean drinking water are staggering. The World Bank estimates that water-related illnesses kill more African children under age five than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.[vii] In its recent report, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that contaminated water and inadequate sanitation due to shortage of clean water help transmit diseases, such as, diarrhea, cholera, dysentery and typhoid, which kill millions of people every year, particularly children under five. Diarrheal deaths due to unclean drinking water is estimated at 502,000 each year; the young children being the hardest hit.[viii]
The unintended consequence of the lack of clean drinking water is that children, especially girls, are burdened by the task of fetching water for the family, thus preventing them from attending school and receiving education. Due to the traditional archaic African gender role, girls are expected to assist their mothers, in addition to other household chores, like cooking, bathing the younger siblings and laundry, in fetching water from the stream too. Children who do not attend school are believed to have a reduced learning potential caused by parasitic infection.[ix] In terms of real socio-economic impact, recent study shows that women and girls combined spend around 60% of their waking hours each day fetching water, which is translated into approximately 110 million work hours every year.[x] A study of Tanzanian school children shows that school attendance levels are 12% higher for girls who live within 15 minutes of a source of water than for girls who live an hour away.[xi] The UN estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion potential work hours per year spent on collecting water.[xii] The number of hours and/or days spent fetching water means absences from school and loss of education, which hinders young African girls, when they come of age, from breaking out of the cycle of unequal opportunity for gainful employment and income.
Safe drinking water is among the most important factors for a healthy population. Water from the stream or lake is most often polluted, therefore, unsuitable for human consumption. Rainwater is likewise polluted by atmospheric and/or space debris and may only be good for grass and mammals. I have attended meetings organized by Africans in the diasporas where attendees were asked to name a few social factors that would trigger reverse migration to their countries of origin. Access to clean drinking water, electricity and personal security were mentioned, either first, second or third by the attendees. Lack of safe drinking water makes people sick. An unhealthy population, followed by erratic power supply and political instability, are the major factors slowing down economic development in Africa. The consequence is low productivity and flight of skilled workers to the developed countries. There is no better way to end this article than citing Mahatma Gandhi’s aphorism, “It is health that is the real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” The most valuable gift African leaders can give to their citizens is access to safe drinking water. To think otherwise would be to try to quantify the unquantifiable.
[i] United Nations Department of Economic & Social Affairs. “International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ 2005 – 2015.” Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/africa.shtml. See also: Face Africa: Why Water. Retrieved from: http://www.faceafrica.org/whywater/
[ii] United Nations. Water. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/water/
[iv] United Nations Committee on Social, E.a.C.R. Statement of the Committee on the Right to Sanitation; 45th session, E/C.12/2010/1; United Nations: Geneva, Switzerland, 2010. Available online: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/docs/statements/E-C-12-2010- 1.doc (accessed on 23 September 2012).
[v] Jasper C, Le T-T, Bartram J (2012) “Water and Sanitation in Schools: A Systematic Review of the Health and Educational Outcomes.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 9: 2772–2787.
[vi] Edmonds, G. Wasted Time: The Price of Poor Access, 3 ed.; Technical Paper; ILO-International Labour Office: Geneva, Switzerland, 1998
[viii] W.H.O. (2018). “Drinking Water.” Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water
[ix] “Human Development Report 2006: Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis,” United Nations Development Programme, 2006, http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/pdfs/report/HDR06-complete.pdf.
[x] “Why Water?” op. cit
[xi] Josephine Fogden (2009) “Access to Safe Drinking Water and Its Impact on Global Economic Growth.” Retrieved from: https://faculty.washington.edu/categ/healthanddevgbf/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Access-to-Safe-Drinking-Water.pdf
[xii] “Why Water?” op.cit