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Exposing Africa’s Manmade Water Crisis

The imminent shutdown of Cape Town’s piped water network should serve as a wake-up call for all of Africa to overhaul urban water-management systems. Unfortunately, like Africa’s water resources themselves, Cape Town’s crisis seems likely to be wasted.

About a decade ago, at a meeting of South African mayors convened by Lindiwe Hendricks, South Africa’s then-minister of water and environmental affairs, we predicted that an unprecedented water crisis would hit one of the country’s main cities within 15 years, unless water-management practices were improved significantly.

That prediction has now come true, with Cape Town facing a shutdown of its piped water network. The question now is whether African leaders will allow our other projection – that, within the next 25-30 years, many more of the continent’s cities will be facing similar crises – to materialize.

Africa has long struggled with urban water and wastewater management. As the continent’s population has swelled, from about 285 million in 1960 to nearly 1.3 billion today, and urbanization has progressed, the challenge has become increasingly acute. And these trends are set to intensify: by 2050, the continent’s total population is expected to exceed 2.5 billion, with 55% living in urban environments.

The challenge African countries face may not be unique, but it is, in some ways, unprecedented. After all, in Western countries, urbanization took place over a much longer period, and against a background of steadily improving economic conditions. In building effective systems for water and wastewater management, cities had adequate investment funds and the relevant expertise.

In Africa, cities’ financial and management capacities are already overwhelmed. As a result, water and wastewater management has often fallen by the wayside, with policymakers focusing on water-related issues only when droughts and floods occur. The Third World Centre for Water Management estimates that only about 10-12% of Africa’s population has access to adequate domestic and industrial wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal.

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