Africa's water crisis: a quarter of a billion dollars down the drain

Tens of thousands of boreholes in rural areas have fallen into disrepair, depriving poor communities of water.

News, 20 March 2009

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on rural water projects in Africa, threatening the health and livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people according to a forthcoming briefing paper by the International Institute for Environment and Development. The announcement comes ahead of the UN’s World Water Day (22 March).

Tens of thousands of boreholes in rural areas have fallen into disrepair, depriving poor communities of water because donors, governments and nongovernmental organisations have built infrastructure but ignored the need to maintain it.

The paper provides a 30-point checklist of features that rural African water supply systems need to succeed. They include the right technology, community ownership and local capacity to repair and maintain wells.

"The water community has often focused on building infrastructure, rather than on maintaining it. This failure is forcing women and children to carry water over great distances with serious impacts on their health and education," says Jamie Skinner, the paper's author. "It is not enough to drill a well and walk away. Water projects needs to support long term maintenance needs and engage local communities. Without this, it is like throwing money down the drain."

Tens of thousands of new water points - such as boreholes with motorised or hand pumps - are created in Africa each year but many fall into disrepair after just a few years. Of 52 deep water borehole and supply systems built by the charity Caritas since the 1980s in Senegal's Kaolack Region, only 33 still function today.

The Global Water Initiative has found that 58% of such water points in northern Ghana needed repair. In western Niger, it found that of 43 boreholes, 13 are abandoned, 18 are non-functional for more than three days once a year, and 12 are non-functional for more than three days, more than three times a year.

"Across rural Africa, some 50,000 water supply points have failed, representing a waste of US$215-360 million," says Skinner. "It seems simple and obvious but it needs to be said: there is little point in drilling wells if there is no system to maintain them. Every day that a borehole does not provide safe water, people are obliged to drink from unclean pools and rivers, exposing them to water-borne diseases. "

The paper says donors, governments and nongovernmental organisations need to realise that funding infrastructure is just part of the solution. Also important are better investments in knowledge, community-led management and government capacity to sustain water supplies.

It says local communities must take part in choosing and maintaining appropriate technologies, and how much they are willing or able to pay to maintain them, rather than having them imposed on them by outsiders.