The key to unlocking Africa’s progressive future

Increasing access to water and sanitation is a basic precursor to wider economic development argues activist.

End Water Poverty, has spearheaded a campaign centred on a petition calling on decision makers around the world to keep the promises they have made on water and sanitation [AFP/Getty]

The province of Luapula in my home country of Zambia takes its name from a river.  The Luapula forms a section of the Congo, one of Africa’s longest rivers. It snakes away east of the Congo, tracking the border between Zambia and neighbouring DRC and joining together two lakes, Mweru and Bangwelo. With its lakes, swamps, river and waterfalls, some 40 percent of Luapula Province is covered by water.  

But while Zambia has made the progress necessary to achieve the access to water Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target at a national level, Luapula lags far behind with less than 3 out of 10 of its population able to access safe water. 

Only 40 percent of Zambia’s population is able to access a toilet. Last month, it was confirmed in a meeting attended by NGOs that Zambian central government funding disbursed to districts for spending on water and sanitation was returned unused due to a lack of capacity at local level. Beset by such problems, like many other African countries Zambia will not reach its MDG target on sanitation. Indeed, with immense disparities between access to sanitation – and in particular water – between its rural and urban areas, and with access to sanitation lagging far behind at a national level, Zambia is in many ways a microcosm of the global situation.

The access to water MDG target has already been reached at a global level. But this achievement is tainted by immense regional disparities – at current rates of progress it will take 200 years for the target to be reached in sub-Saharan Africa. The access to sanitation target is the most off-track of all the MDGs, with 40 percent of the world unable to access a toilet. Indeed, more people own mobile phones than have access to sanitation.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon affirmed in his report released ahead of the UN General Assembly’s MDG Review Summit next week, while remarkable progress has been made since the launch of the MDGs progress as a whole remains “insufficient and highly uneven”. In the words of Deputy UN Secretary General Jan Eliasson, the lack of progress on sanitation in particular is a “scandal”.

For those of us living in the global South with limited or no access to water and sanitation, we realise the impacts this has not just on our individual lives, our health and wellbeing, but on the ability of our countries to grow and of our citizens to become empowered to claim their rights. 

Water and sanitation underpin development. They are integral to advances in health, gender, education, the economy and environmental sustainability. Until firm steps have been taken to halt the 5,000 child deaths every year in Zambia from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, how can we meaningfully talk about development and what it means to have one of the fastest growing economies in the world?

With this in mind, it is little wonder that a burgeoning global movement on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) has emerged over recent years. It is a movement with particular strength in the global South, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

End Water Poverty, the coalition of 260 civil society organisations campaigning for universal access to water and sanitation, has spearheaded a campaign in partnership with NGOs including WaterAid, HELVETAS, World Vision, and the Fresh Water Action Network, centred on a petition calling on decision makers around the world to keep the promises they have made on water and sanitation. The petition now has 1 million signatures from across the world and is still growing. This year on World Water Day, more than 400,000 people took to the streets across the world to symbolically walk for water and sanitation. And in Europe, nearly 2 million people have also signed a petition calling for the human right to water and sanitation to be enshrined in EU law.

The UN Special Event towards achieving the MDGs, to be held in New York next week, will look at gaps, weaknesses and how to accelerate the MDGs, and also the post-2015 development framework. I will travel to New York to attend this event and hand in End Water Poverty’s petition to the UN. I will join other members of civil society to call on member states to live up to the commitments they have made on water, sanitation and hygiene, and in so doing save the lives of hundreds of thousands and boost the chances of billions more to be able to enjoy lives with boundaries determined not by their inability to access safe water and sanitation but by the limits of their potential and their aspirations.

In an era of shrinking government budgets, there is also a pragmatic case for investing in WASH alongside the moral imperative; the benefits of investing in water and especially sanitation far outweigh the costs. To achieve the MDG target on sanitation by 2015, an estimated $32.2bn in funding would be needed from 2010 – 2015. Estimated total economic losses from inadequate water supply and sanitation services are $260bn a year. 

Some 40 billion hours are spent walking for water in sub-Saharan Africa every year. This burden falls mainly on women and girls who consequently lose the ability to gain an education, and consistently face the threat of assault through being forced to defecate in the open. The cost of this lack of access for sub-Saharan African economies has been estimated at about 5 percent of annual GDP.

But beyond this economic case lies the importance of what has been framed as the “people-centred agenda” that will replace the MDGs. It is clear from the hundreds of thousands ready to take to the streets on World Water Day, the millions willing to sign petitions, and assessments conducted in a number of African countries that show that access to clean water is a high, and frequently the highest, priority of the poor, that they will not tolerate any more stalling on providing the access to water and sanitation that is needed to live a decent life.

When it comes to ensuring improved access to water and sanitation, the voice of the people is clear – leaders must keep the promises they have made and achieve universal access to water and sanitation.


Jackson Mwenya is the Director of Vision Africa Regional Network (VAREN).