A bold response is needed to achieve a water-secure world

Water is the most essential human need and is critical for development, growth, andwater_hero resilience.  Clean water, safe sanitation, and good hygiene are necessary for achieving positive health outcomes.

Yet one-quarter of the world’s population – 2 billion people – lack safe drinking water and half – 3.6 billion people – lack safe sanitation.

The damage to human capital is staggering. In 2019, diarrheal diseases were ranked the 8th greatest cause of death in the world, claiming 1.5 million lives worldwide, mainly due to poor water and sanitation. The burden is particularly harsh on women and girls. For example, lack of personal hygiene facilities in schools leads to school absenteeism, with lifelong repercussions from learning losses.

For every $1 invested in basic drinking water, there are $3 in returns, and even higher figures for water investments in rural areas. Water is important for production, with farming accounting for 23 percent of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa. Water is also key for hydropower, mining, and industry. And importantly, 90 percent of climate events are water related, so better water management is key for adaptation and resilience. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored critical gaps in water and sanitation services, with serious consequences for public health.”

Despite the proven benefits of investing in water for development, water security – the availability of sufficient water – is far from being realized in many countries. The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored critical gaps in water and sanitation services, with serious consequences for public health.  This challenge is particularly acute in Africa, where poor water quality is the root cause of 70–80 percent of diseases. Droughts and floods are becoming more intense, groundwater is drying up, and cities and farms face water shortages.

‘World’s largest water event’

Against this backdrop, the World Water Forum  – the world’s largest water event – convenes for the first time on African soil from March 21 to 26. As policymakers, business leaders, NGOs, donors, and international organizations gather in Dakar, Senegal, we will work to coordinate urgent action in the water sector on three fronts: (i) enhanced policy and institutional reforms, (ii) increased public and private investment, and (iii) greater citizen participation.

Enhanced policy and institutional reforms are needed to deliver universal safe water and sanitation and support climate change adaptation. Water institutions – such as river basin agencies, utilities, and municipalities – are crucial for implementation, but they are often hampered by weak capacity and unclear mandates.

Senegal is one of several countries that has made large strides on the construction of water infrastructures, and policy and institutional reforms , including through a dedicated asset holding company for water supply, a sanitation agency that focuses on investments and effective partnerships with the private sector. In general, focused policy measures and better institutions can enable sustainable and equitable water use, value water properly, and deliver services to more people, more efficiently.

“…we will work to coordinate urgent action in the water sector on three fronts: (i) enhanced policy and institutional reforms, (ii) increased public and private investment, and (iii) greater citizen participation.”

Increased public and private investment are equally important for tackling water insecurity.  Investment needs will increase six-fold from current levels between now and 2030. Africa will need investments of up to $20bn a year,  but countries today are allocating no more than 0.5% of their GDP to the water sector.

Governments alone will not be able to afford this, especially now with many of them struggling to pay for basic services amid mounting debt. While multilateral development banks have committed to increasing their financing for water by 25%–35%, private investment will be key to fill the gap, with robust public-private partnerships needed to boost private capital participation in the sector.

‘Greater participation is need at all levels’

For these efforts to succeed, greater citizen participation is needed at all levels to transform how we use, share, save, prevent water waste, and value water.  In Senegal, farmers are collaborating with irrigation agencies on climate-smart agricultural innovations to establish solar-powered irrigation systems and rehabilitate water mobilization schemes. This will help increase production, lower risks, and raise incomes for farmers. Farmer-led irrigation shows great promise, but it requires policy support and investment to increase farmer knowledge and access to financing.

We must act now to protect people, livelihoods, and resources. This means strengthening safety nets to cover water shocks, building resilience through enhanced storage solutions, and redesigning our cities to improve the way water is managed. Water-induced crises can provide opportunities for change and highlight the urgency.

As the African Union’s Water Vision for 2025 notes, the water crisis “cannot be successfully addressed by adherence to business as usual in water resources management.” The World Bank and the African Union are committed to strengthening water security and resilience on the continent. 

Finally, we would like to highlight how cooperation is critical for the concerted sharing and management of transboundary river basins to avoid conflicts over water and contribute to the preservation of international peace and security.

In West Africa, the Organization for the Development of the Senegal River (OMVS) and the Organization for the Development of the Gambia River (ODG), created respectively in 1972 and 1978, offer concrete examples of effective collaboration.

On all these common goals, we can continue to work together in going further with our achievements.

This op-ed was originally published in The Africa Report and in Jeune Afrique in French.