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Water scarcity or lack of safe drinking water is one of the world's leading problems affecting more than 1.1 billion people globally, meaning that one in every six people lacks access to safe drinking water. [1] The Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation set up by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines safe drinking water as “water with microbial, chemical and physical characteristics that meets WHO guidelines or national standards on drinking water quality.”

A third of all nations currently suffer from clean water scarcity [2], but Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of water-stressed countries of any other place on the globe. In Africa, the struggle for access to clean drinking water is one of today's most obvious examples of how water scarcity leads to the stalling and reversal of human progress. While each individual living in the United States uses on average 100 to 175 gallons of water per day in the home, the average African family uses only 5 gallons of water per day [3]. This vast disparity of clean water availability and consumption is reflected in a number of different developmental aspects. These consequences include the effects on health, opportunities for women, children's education, agricultural practices, regional conflict, and productivity and development.

Impact On Development[edit]


The most immediately apparent impact of water scarcity in Africa is on the country’s health. With a complete lack of water, humans can on average only live up to 3 days. This often forces those living in water deprived regions to turn to unsafe water resources, which then contributes to the spread of waterborne diseases including Malaria, Typhoid fever, Cholera, and Diarrhea. These waterborne diseases are not usually found in developed countries because of sophisticated water treatment systems that filter and chlorinate water, but natural, untreated water sources often contain tiny disease-carrying worms and bacteria [4]. Although many of these waterborne sicknesses are treatable and preventable, they are nonetheless one of the leading causes of disease and death in the world. Globally, 2.2 million people die each year from Diarrhea-related disease, and at any given time fifty percent of all hospital beds in the world are occupied by patients suffering from water-related diseases [5]. Infants and children are especially susceptible to these diseases because of their inexperienced immune systems [6], which lends to elevated infant mortality rates in many regions of Africa.

When infected with these waterborne diseases, those living in African communities suffering from water scarcity cannot contribute to the community’s productivity and development because of a simple lack of strength. Additionally, economic resources are sapped by the cost of medicine to treat waterborne diseases, which takes away from resources that might have been used for food or school fees [7]. This also takes a toll on the governmental funds. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) estimates that in Sub-Saharan Africa, treatment of Diarrhea due to water contamination consumes 12 percent of the country’s health budget. With better water conditions, the burden on healthcare would be less substantial and a healthier workforce[8] would stimulate economic growth and pull many people out of poverty.

Women, Children, and Education[edit]

African women are disproportionally burdened by scarcity of clean drinking water. In most African societies, women are seen as the collectors, managers, and guardians of water, especially within the domestic sphere that includes household chores, cooking, washing, and child rearing [9]. Because of these traditional gender labor roles, women are forced to spend around sixty percent of each day collecting water, which translates to approximately 200 million collective work hours by women globally per day [10]. For African women, this often means carrying the typical jerrycan that can weigh over 40 pounds when full [11] for an average of six kilometers each day [12]. As a result of this, many women are unable to hold professional employment.

Additionally, this prevents many young girls from attending school and receiving an education. They are expected to not only aid their mothers in water retrieval, but to also help with the demands of household chores that are made more time-intensive because of a lack of readily-available water. Furthermore, a lack of clean water means the absence of sanitary facilities and latrines in schools, and so once puberty hits, this has the largest impact on female children. In terms of lost educational opportunity, if adequate investment were made in drinking water and sanitation, it is estimated that it would result in 272 million more school attendance days per year [13]. This lost number of potential school days and education results in the hindrance of the next generation’s African females from breaking out of the cycle of unequal opportunity for gainful employment. Because of this, available clean water for women and children translates to Africans with potential for education, prosperity, power, literacy, hygiene, security, and equality [14].


The majority of Africa remains dependent on an agricultural lifestyle and so water scarcity translates to a loss of food security. At this point, the majority of rural African communities are not tapping into their irrigation potential, and according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa and New Partnership for Africa’s Development, “irrigation is key to achieving increased agricultural production that is important for economic development and for attaining food security” [15]. But for many regions, there is a lack of financial and human resources to support infrastructure and technology required for proper crop irrigation. Because of this, the impact of droughts, floods, and desertification is greater in terms of both African economic loss and human life loss due to crop failure and starvation. Thus, for the extremely high number of African areas suffering from water scarcity issues, investing in development means sustainably withdrawing from freshwater sources, ensuring food security by expanding irrigation areas, and effectively managing the effects of climate change [16].


The explosion of populations in developing nations within Africa combined with climate change is causing extreme strain within and between nations. In the past, countries have worked to resolve water tensions through negotiation, but there is predicted to be an escalation in aggression over water accessibility. Federal intelligence agencies have issued the joint judgment that in the next ten years, water issues are not likely to cause internal and external tensions to intensify to war, but after 2022 there is expected to be a change [17]. Based on the classified National Intelligence Estimate on water security, requested by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and completed in Fall 2011, after 2022 water will be more likely to be used as a weapon of war and potential tool for terrorism, especially in North Africa [18]. On World Water Day, the State Department stated that water stress, “will likely increase the risk of instability and state failure, exacerbate regional tensions and distract countries from working with the United States on important policy objectives.” Specifically referring to the Nile in Egypt, Sudan, and nations further south, the report predicts that upstream nations will limit access to water for political reasons, and that terrorists may target water related infrastructures, such as reservoirs and dams, more frequently [19]. Because of this, the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Risk Report has included water as on of the world’s top five risks for the first time.

Productivity and Development[edit]

Poverty is directly related to the accessibility of clean drinking water- without it, the chances of breaking out of the poverty trap is extremely slim. The social and economic consequences of a lack of clean water penetrate into realms of education, opportunities for gainful employment, physical strength and health, agricultural and industrial development, and thus the overall productive potential of a community, nation, and/or region. Because of this, the UN estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion potential work hours per year collecting water [20].Because of this, the United Nations Development Programme estimated that in Africa, every dollar spent on water and sanitation generates a nine-fold return in saved time, increased productivity and reduced health cost.

Issues By Region[edit]

Physical Scarcity and Economic Scarcity[edit]

Map showing Global Physical and Economic Water Scarcity 2006

Water scarcity is both a natural and human-made phenomenon [21]. It is thus essential to break it down into two general types: Economic scarcity and physical scarcity. Economic scarcity refers to the fact that finding a reliable source of safe water is time consuming and expensive. Alternatively, physical scarcity is when there simply is not enough water [22].

The 2006 United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that 300 million out of the 800 million who live on the African continent live in a water-scarce environment [23]. Specifically in the very north of Africa, as well the very south of Africa, the rising global temperatures accompanying climate change have intensified the hydrological cycle that leads to dryer dry seasons, thus increasing the risk of more extreme and frequent droughts. This significantly impacts the availability, quality and quantity of water due to reduced river flows and reservoir storage, lowering of water tables and drying up of aquifers in the northern and southern regions of Africa.

The majority of Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from economic scarcity that exists because of population’s lack of the necessary monetary means to utilize adequate sources of water. Both political reasons and ethnic conflict have contributed to this unequal distribution of resources. Out of the two forms of water scarcity, economic scarcity can be addressed quickly and effectively with simple infrastructure to collect rainwater from roofs and dams, but this requires economic resources that many of these areas lack due to an absence of industrial development and widespread poverty [24].

Addressing the Issue[edit]

International Efforts[edit]

To adequately address the issue of water scarcity in Africa, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa emphasizes the need to invest in the development of Africa’s potential water resources to reduce unnecessary suffering, ensure food security, and protect economic gains by effectively managing droughts, floods, and desertification [25]. Some suggested and on going efforts to achieve this include digging wells, rainwater harvesting, and building clean-water catchment and storage tanks.

Efforts made by the United Nations with the Millennium Development Goals have targeted water scarcity not just for Africa, but globally. The compiled list includes eight international development goals, seven of which are directly impacted by water scarcity. Access to water affects poverty, food scarcity, educational attainment, social and economic capital of women, livelihood security, disease, and human and environmental health [26]. Because addressing the issue of water is so integral to reaching the MDGs, one of the sub-goals includes halving the proportion of the globe’s population without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. In March 2012, the UN announced that this goal has been met almost four years in advance, suggesting that global efforts to reduce water scarcity are on a successful trend [27].

As one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the United States plays an integral role in promoting solutions to aid with clean water scarcity. One of many efforts include USAID’s WASH- the WASH for Life partnership with the Gates Foundation- that works to promote water, sanitation, and hygiene. With this, the U.S., “will identify, test, and scale up evidence-based approaches for delivering these services to people in some of the poorest regions” [28]. Additionally, in March 2012, Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. Water Partnership, which will bring together people from the private sector, the philanthropic community, non-governmental organizations, academics, experts, and the government in an attempt to look for system-wide solutions [29]. The technologies and ability to tackle the issue of water scarcity and cleanliness are present, but it is highly a matter of accessibility. Thus, the partnership will aim at making these solutions available and obtainable at a local level.


Unfortunately though, Africa is home to both the largest number of water-scarce countries out of any region, as well as home to the most difficult countries to reach in terms of water aid. The prevalence of rural villages traps many areas in what the UN Economic Commission for Africa refers to as the “Harvesting Stage” [30], which makes water-scarce regions difficult to aid because of a lack of industrial technology to make solutions sustainable. In addition to the geographic and developmental limiting factors, a number of political, economic reasons also stand in the way of ensuring adequate aid for Africa. Politically, tensions between local governments versus foreign non-governmental organizations impact the ability to successfully bring in money and aid-workers. Economically, urban areas suffer from extreme wealth gaps in which the overwhelming poor often pay four to ten times more for sanitary water than the elite, hindering the poor from gaining access to clean water technologies and efforts [31]. As a result of all these factors, it is estimated that fifty percent of all water projects fail, less than five percent of projects are visited, and less than one percent have any long-term monitoring [32].


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