Fix Africa’s sanitation challenges to prevent diseases

Accessing safe and clean water
Villagers collecting safe and clean drinking water Copyright: Arne Hoel/World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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[NAIROBI] Scientists have done substantive research that links causes of diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea to poor sanitation, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the World Bank’s water sanitation programme, 564 million and 326 million Africans do not have access to sanitation and safe drinking water respectively. The programme says that although countries such as Rwanda have made significant progress in access to clean water and sanitation, the continent needs to accelerate efforts to provide sanitation and water services to the millions of its population without them.

But as the search for solutions continues, there seems to be consensus globally to invest in preventive measures such as vaccines. This has been seen in a number of efforts to fight diseases such as TB and malaria. However, there seems to be less focus on one of the measures that can help significantly cut down the burden of disease on the continent, which is how to improve as well as revamp the sanitation sector in the countries. These measures were discussed extensively at a workshop organised by Kenya’s Ministry of Water and Sanitation in Nairobi last week (29-31 May).

One of the key concerns for sanitation experts was how to get simple, cost-friendly innovative technologies for waste-water management in Kenya.

“The long-term benefits of sanitation can be instrumental in significantly reducing the burden of disease in Africa.”

Gilbert Nakweya

A study by Afrobarometer shows that two-thirds of Africans lack access to sewage infrastructure.

On a positive note, since 2005 the access to piped water has increased by 14 per cent while access to sewage infrastructure has improved by eight per cent. However, this progress is still way below to meeting the sanitation goals of Africa.

The goals is to ensure access to sanitation for all by 2030 although different countries have set up different targets: For instance, Kenya aims at 80 per cent of its population accessing clean water and sanitation by 2030, according to Festus Mutuku, head of water services provision in the Ministry of Water and Sanitation.

Although the experts who attended the meeting believe that the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 of ensuring access to water and sanitation for all by 2030 is very ambitious for Africa, the continent should increase its investments to turnaround the situation.

Inadequate funding was listed as one of the top challenges limiting the continent in meeting its sanitation goals. Kenya, for instance, needs 100 billion shillings (about US$100 million) annually to meet sanitation goals by 2030 but can only raise half of that yearly.

However, Winnie Guchu, Kenya’s chief administrative secretary in the Ministry of Water and Sanitation, says that Africa should make maximum use of the available funds to hit the road even as they look for more funds.

For instance, she explains that if two million Kenyans could purchase a 200-litre water drum that costs US$10 to harvest rainwater, it would help many Kenyans access water. She adds that the current budgetary allocations should be used to scale up technologies that work on onsite treatment of sewage — that is treatment at or near points of production.

In fact, the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 recognised access to clean water and sanitation as a human right because it was critical to the access to other human rights such as education. This implies then that governments and development organisations need to step up efforts to ensure Africa gets it right.

Why should we wait to use more money curing diseases when we can avoid them? The long-term benefits of sanitation can be instrumental in significantly reducing the burden of disease in Africa. I am strongly persuaded that we need to create policies and an enabling environment that encourage innovation and development of technologies that can manage wastewater.

Although sanitation needs of Africa require a lot of funding, I believe that it may not be as expensive as research to get vaccines, for example. Of course I am not against vaccines but the point is that investment in sanitation will help transform Africa, especially the health of children who are a big asset of this continent.

If truly we are committed to leaving no one behind, access to clean water and sanitation should be at the top of Africa’s development agenda.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.