The common issues for clean drinking water availability in the Eastern Africa

By Ekaterina Kilima – Art in Tanzania internship

The shortage of freshwater resources is considered a global problem which affects many parts of the world, including the Eastern African countries. It is often wrongly believed that, because the majority of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, the availability of clean drinking water for humans is abundant. In reality, only 3% of the global water is considered freshwater suitable for drinking (WWF). Therefore, there is a high need for a well-balanced management of the available water resources.

One of the main issues for high water demand in the Eastern Africa is the ongoing population growth and urbanization, which in fact increases the standards of living and requires more water per capita. For example, urban population in Tanzania has increased by 7.2 million people between 2005 and 2015 but the water sector bodies fail to respond adequately to these changes (GIZ 2018). It may sound like a paradox that, while the Eastern African states hold the largest amount of on ground water reservoirs on the continent, with Lake Victoria being the second largest freshwater lake in the world, at least half of the population is vulnerable to the water scarcity problem. Nonetheless, there are several socio-economic and socio-political causes which enhance the problem of drinking water availability.

Lake Victoria

One of these causes is an increasing water demand in agriculture which receives water for irrigation from the nearby freshwater resources such as rivers and lakes. Some amount of freshwater from the wetlands is being lost in the process because of inefficient irrigation methods. Due to the increasing population, the conflict between the water needs of citizens and the water needs of farming is going to become more explicit. Moreover, surface water reserves often get polluted because of the closely located industrial activities, for example oil extraction or transportation. Water contamination can also happen due to nutrient and wastewater transportation from urban and rural areas which is closely connected to poor sanitation practices. After getting polluted, this water cannot be used in households unless using multi-stage water filters.

Perhaps, one of the most complex causes for freshwater scarcity for the Eastern Africa is the trans-boundary ownership of the water sources as well as their weak management. Most countries in the Eastern Africa must share water resources with each other which often leads to uneven distribution of the fresh water (IJWRD 2016). Therefore, the problem is not in the lack of water reservoirs but in the unfair distribution and poor management. The inaccuracy of the water management involves inadequate implementation of the environmental law, corruption of interests among authorities but also lack of problem-specific knowledge and funds.

There is no universal list of solutions that would help all the countries in the Eastern Africa. The perfect mix of solutions for each country would depend on the criteria such as population, climate, level of corruption, economic and political stability, and others. However, there are some suggestions that are critical for each country. One, it is important to support local farmers in their transition to more efficient irrigation practices which would allow more water to be available for drinking and household needs. Second, governments should increase the global awareness on the positive changes in the region to attract more foreign investments. Governments should work closely with international organizations and NGOs to develop more sustainable projects to provide equitable access to clean drinking water. Third, it is critical to legally protect African wetlands from human-led contamination and avoid any disturbance of the ecosystem.

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