Water and Sanitation in Africa

In many African villages, clean drinking water is a luxury, and every day people walk for miles in the hopes of finding it. (Photo: Lucian Coman,

In the weeks leading up to the U.N. observation of World Water Day (March 22), U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced a major achievement. Nearly 90 percent of the world's population now have access to clean drinking water, up from 76 percent a decade before. But the benefits of that water are still elusive for hundreds of millions.

Godeliève Niragira is a mother of four in Gikungu, a suburb of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Her community has running water—sometimes.

"We can spend two days with no water, and the shocking thing is that no one ever tells us the reason it was cut off," she says. "We have to camp out in front of the tap and stay there until we have enough water to fill a jug or a bucket."

When there is no water, no one can wash their hands. "Everyone is afraid of catching some epidemic disease, which could arise from one moment to the next," adds another resident.

According to a UNICEF report, diarrhea linked to unclean water kills 24,000 young people around the world every day.

There was no running water at all in Gikungu until a neighborhood association raised 600,000 Burundian francs ($465, six months' salary for a middle-class professional) to outfit 120 houses with plumbing. "It's better than nothing," says a member of the association.

Despite steps forward over the past few years, Sub-Saharan Africa "remains at the back of the queue" in terms of drinking water and sanitation, says George Yap, executive director of WaterCan, a Canadian NGO active in East Africa. He says access to drinking water goes hand in hand with access to improved sanitation and hygiene education, which is much less widespread.

"We talk about drinking water, but we don't talk enough about sanitation," adds Anais Mourey of Coalition Eau, a French partnership of NGOs dedicated to increasing water access. "It's a taboo subject even though it's natural. … We all go to the toilet."

According to Coalition Eau, 40 percent of the world's population, around 3 billion people, lacks access to toilets. All seven continents are affected, although South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are the worst off. The United Nations had hoped to halve the proportion of the world's population without access to drinking water and sanitation, but has acknowledged that "improvements in sanitation are bypassing the poor" and "the sanitation target appears to be out of reach."

"We have to treat access to drinking water and sanitation separately, but overall it is one global issue," Yap says. "With access to drinking water we're on track, but with sanitation we're off track. … We could help a family with a pit latrine, but what happens if they don't wash their hands afterwards? We could build a well with clean, delicious water, but if you put it in a dirty bucket that water is dangerous again."

United Nations Development Programme statistics confirm a gap between drinking water and sanitation coverage. In Botswana, one of the more prosperous countries of Southern Africa, over 90 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water, but only 60 percent has improved sanitation. In rural areas, that drops to 40 percent. In Kenya, one country where WaterCan's work is focused, over half the population has clean drinking water, but only a third is covered by sanitation programs. In rural regions of arid West African countries like Chad, Niger and Mauritania, less than 10 percent of the population has toilets.

In Kenya, WaterCan partners with a local organization, Maji Na Ufanisi, and local youth to build and maintain safe and clean toilet facilities for schools as well as rural and slum communities. "We train communities to do maintenance, because if you don't do that the system breaks down," says Yap.

"We want to increase the access of slum dwellers to clean water and sanitation in order to create a more conducive learning environment," says Maji Na Ufanisi Executive Director Edward Kairu. "Students are able to concentrate and come to school more often." Kairu would like to expand the program with funding from WaterCan, the Nairobi city government and the Swedish International Development Agency.

Funding is where sanitation-related initiatives are at a disadvantage. "Donors want quick results," says Yap. "With water, you dig wells, you have water, things happen. Sanitation is different; it is about separating human waste from drinking water and from the environment."

"Sanitation isn't a priority for funders; it's still not easy to talk about it," says Mourey. "But if we don't talk about it, kids will continue to die of diarrhea."

As elections approach in both the United States and France, Mourey calls on Western voters to generate the "political will and targeted finance" needed to improve the situation. "We have to move faster or else we won't get there," she says. "The current situation is unacceptable."

Jean-Marie Bukeyeneza contributed reporting from Bujumbura. Ruby Pratka is a nomadic, Canadian-educated freelance journalist. She speaks English, Russian, French and Quebecois. Her suitcase is currently parked in Nimes, France, but her heart and mind are in East Africa.