How Technology Can Help Solve The Water Crisis In Africa

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was thrilled that I was approached and then commissioned to write for one of the leading academic environmental magazines in the world, TerraGreen after they read my post on The Green Wall of Africa.  I was thrilled that it was made the March 2014 Cover Story with no edits needed.  I thought for a different sort of post, and with the kind permission of TerraGreen, I would put it here too.

Cover Story

Me with my cover story

Africa is no longer the unilaterally impoverished continent that many of us grew up with.  Famines and diseases have been eradicated in many areas and subsistence living has been replaced by an ever growing middle-class urban population complete with modern homes, cars and wireless communications.  Slowly dictatorships and corrupt regimes are giving way to democracy and the wars which did so much to suck up resources are by large given way to stability and trade.

However, vast swathes of the continent are still lacking in infrastructure and many people still suffer abject poverty.  Even in areas that have made a great deal of progress since the 1980’s, one factor is constraining growth and prosperity above all others, that of the availability of clean water.

Africa is the continent that has contributed least to global warming and climate change, relatively industrially undeveloped two centuries after the first smoking factories of Europe and 20th Century North America and its pollutions is almost insignificant compared to the latter day industrialists in Asia.  However, as is often the case, those whom are most innocent are the ones most susceptible to climate change.  Africa is forecast to receive 10% less rainfall in the coming decades and what water does fall will be more quickly evaporated by the increasing temperatures.  The worst affected area is bound to be in the marginal areas of Sub-Sahara Africa where population growth already results in water poverty and its primarily agricultural economy is highly dependent on rainfall and surface water.

Africa_Koppen_Map

Africa Koppen Map showing the climate range across the continent. Red areas are desert and low in water.

In 2006, the United Nations identified 300 million people out of 800 million in Africa live in water scarce environments, some areas because there is little physical water present and others because there is water present but it is difficult and prohibitively expensive to access the water.  Many of us are familiar with the ecological tragedy of the Aral Sea but much less prominence is given to Lake Chad which now holds just 10% of its former volume due to over extraction often because access to the water is priced so cheaply that little thought is given to conserving this precious resource.

Much of Sub-Saharan Africa receives sufficient though irregular rain-fall and if only simple measures were taken including the collection of rain water in reservoirs or even the roofs of houses for small communities then an improvement would be quickly felt by all and reduce the destruction and waste from seasonal flooding.  At present only 5% of agricultural land is irrigated.

Whilst technology has not always been the saviour of ecological problems in Africa, recently it has become apparent that much of the continent is sitting on a number of vast underground aquifers.  Studies indicate that there is actually 100 times the water volume underground than on the surface of Africa and this could hold the key to the development of the continent and its people.

Is this water source sustainable?  The answer is of course a ‘maybe’.  Even if it were accessed and utilised in an irresponsible manner, many areas would have unlimited water for over 70 years.  However, if properly managed then this water source could supply African indefinitely, particularly so if the problems of over-population are brought under control.  This is because excess rainfall that does not flow to the oceans in rivers or get absorbed by plants will very slowly trickle down between layers of rock.  The water is either held in spaces between rocks or in porous stones such as sandstone, is contained in between the individual grains of the rock itself which in effect acts as a giant sponge.   As the water moves between the rocks, impurities are filtered away resulting in the water often being cleaner and more pure than that available from rivers or lakes.

The British Geological Survey and University College London (UCL) have released maps which collate data from national governments and 283 individual research sites that they hope will assist in the development of water resources.  It is particularly striking that many of the areas that are driest on the surface such as Libya, Algeria, Chad, Egypt and Sudan are sitting on the largest water reserves which the researchers estimate are the equivalent of 75 metres deep across the area.

Africa Aquifers

Map showing the underground water sources in Africa. Many of the most arid areas have vast subterranean water resources.

While it would be tempting to immediately extract vast amounts of water through industrial sized bore holes, specialists are of the opinion that small-scale and local extractions take place.  These would be enough to support the local populations and surrounding agriculture but not large enough to ‘waste’ water or risk the aquifer drying up as in places under the Sahara, the water there is the result of rainfall approximately 5,000 years ago.  Scientists believe that this water should not be merely used as the primary source of water but as a supplement, to assist during those periods of prolonged dry weather due to climate change and in conjunction with improved water storage infrastructure.  Care must be taken as aquifers in similarly dry locations such as Saudi Arabia have begun to run dry after prestigious vanity projects involving farms and golf courses have squandered water reserves after a short period of uncontrolled use leaving them to return to desert once more.

The study was financed by the U.K. government and its International Development minister has welcomed its findings and its ability to transform the lives of many Africans.   The importance of clean water isn’t just a matter of life and death but easy availability of clean water improves many aspects of life.  Diseases and premature deaths are reduced allowing the state and individuals to invest in other services and projects.  Still, too many Africans spend hours each day walking to the nearest water well stopping people from improving their lives.

Children currently spend much of their time helping mothers gather water and perform house-hold duties which are time-consuming and difficult without easy access to water.  It is estimated that African children would sit 272 million extra school days per year if water related issues were resolved. Even those who do get to school often suffer from poor hygiene due to undeveloped toilet and washing facilities.

In particular, the position of women in Africa would be greatly improved once improvements to water infrastructure has been set in place.  Put simply, the lack of water stops the people of Africa from reaching their full potential, once water can be taken for granted, time and effort can be spent on less menial aspects of life and allowing more people to be productive and economically active which in the longer term will be beneficial for both people and nation-states themselves.

The World Health Organisation estimate that Sub-Saharan African states spend 12% of their healthcare budgets merely on treating diarrhoea caused by the drinking of contaminated water supplies whereas waterborne diseases such as malaria, typhoid, cholera and dysentery are still killers when with adequate water supplies, they need not be.

Access to water is also vital in the realm of food production with 80% of Africa’s water being used in this sector.  When rains fail, so in many cases do food supplies. African governments have themselves set a target of doubling the area of irrigated land.  Presently waste-water is used in many agricultural areas which result in chemicals and poisons being inadvertently consumed by unknowing consumers.  Better irrigation and better management of land such as by the mass planting of native trees can also assist in not just the slowing but the reversal of desertification.

As already indicated, big projects may not always be the most beneficial to Africa when it comes to water.  Not for profit NGO’s are leading the way in removing sewage from water supplies. Using technologies that require little or no power are vital in more isolated parts of the continent.  Devices must also require low maintenance and be easily serviceable by local villagers.  This is important as a high percentage of existing pumps are broken and unused due to their complexity and difficulty in obtaining replacement parts.  In the past up to 50% of water projects have failed and only a tiny number of projects are checked up on at a later date to make sure they are still functioning.

Systems such as the ‘Elephant Toilet’ separate water from solid material and aid in their speeding the breakdown of matter and so safeguarding local groundwater. The Eco-Sanitation toilet takes a different approach and treats sewage at the source so that only clean water is discharged.

Invented by the brains behind the Segway personal transportation device, the Slingshot technology can produce 1,000 litres of drinking water from contaminated water or even sewage.  Requiring no electrical power, instead its generator runs on cow dung.  Though each unit costs $2,000, it has the bonus of also generating enough electricity to power village light bulbs.  Such imaginative solutions are only waiting for governments, charities or entrepreneurs to make a real difference to villages in even the most remote parts of Africa.

Slingshot

Slingshot technology bringing water to African communities. Photo by Paul Lazarus

Innovative ideas with small-scale water pumps are in the process of being tested in communities throughout Africa with even hand pumps being developed to draw water from wells.  An extremely creative approach has been developed by Water For People’s ‘Play Pumps’ which involve the traditional childrens toy of a roundabout in a play area.  When the children play and push the roundabout, it harnesses a pump which then moves water from a storage facility to either toilets or washing facilities.  As it can be maintained using locally sourced parts, its only drawback is that it can only pump water where there is pre-existing water supplies however each Play Pump can serve 250 people, 40 litres of clean water per day.

On an even smaller scale, clean water technology now exists to allow filtration in individual straws which have a life-span of 1 year for the approximate price of $5-10 US. Benefiting from requiring no electricity, battery or replacement parts it can remove 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria.

Though technology offers a glimpse of a future where Africans enjoy water like the rest of us, many limitations remain that have to be solved by other means. In many urban areas, the poor pay between 4-10 times more than the ruling elite.

The solution to the water problem is different for each part of Africa depending on its geology, population and climate.  Egypt is well known for its growing population being confined to a fraction of its territory which is overwhelmingly arid.  Egypt has long sought to use technology to improve its water situation with first the British in the 19thC and then Nasser in the 20thC building dams on the Nile.  Whilst these have massively improved the situation they have not been without their problems, interfering with the traditional and natural flooding of the Nile river banks which give fertility to the fields that border the Nile.  The dams have also caused ecological problems in the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean Sea, many of which were entirely impossible to foresee by scientists of the time.  A soaring population has meant that even more projects are required to stop the social fabric of the country entirely collapsing.

In order to increase the area of land available for cultivation and habitation, Egypt has embarked on huge projects such as the New Valley Project, sometimes known as the Toshka Project.   This author has himself visited these enormous canals that feed water from Lake Nasser to the country’s Western Desert and stretch out 310km to the Baris Oasis.  However, this now 17 year old project is still someway from completion due to political instability and technical difficulties with the soil types encountered during the construction phase.  Additionally, it has been discovered that much of the surface is highly saline which if exposed to water would produce a very salty mixture, not particularly suitable for crops or humans.

The 2020 target for completion of the project seems unlikely and currently only the Sheikh Zayed canal is fully functionally.  It has been hoped that the project would increase available land use by 10% but some farmers are complaining of difficulties and there are contrasting claims made by those who have relocated from overcrowded Cairo to the new settlements as to how viable the entire project is.  Whilst the goal of the project is laudable, many are unconvinced that exposing so much water to evaporation during its transport along the canals and even agriculture in the desert itself is the best use for water.  However, already there appears to be signs that the water table in the area is rising with the appearance of a number of large bodies of water known as the Toshka Lakes.

The Toshka area is now home to growing numbers fields of wheat, beans and nuts as well as grapes.  However in a country where hunger and a lack of food is always a problem, most of these crops are exported to bring in foreign money even as Egypt becomes the worlds largest importer of grains.  As if often the case in Africa, such mammoth projects are often run to the detriment of smaller, local problems and in this case the farmers on the outskirts of nearby Abu Simbel have seen their crops fail and their pleas for water to be diverted the short distance to their fields have been ignored.

Corruption has been a problem with funds going missing and the amount of new jobs created in the agricultural sector doesn’t make a dent in the 700,000 new jobs required in Egypt every year.  Such social forces and the unrest seen in recent years indicate that a solution to the water, food and overpopulation crisis must be found quickly in Egypt.

Similar large scale irrigation work is underway in Sudan and Ethiopia where water is such an overwhelming issue that war loomed between the three countries.  In fact war over water resources is a concern in many areas including Africa.  War can be caused either due to the desperation of a government to obtain water for its people or simply by a neighbouring or even distant country damming a river for both water and to generate hydro-electricity with a resulting reduced water flow further downstream.   Egypt and Sudan long threatened war on Ethiopia with its plans to dam the Nile but intensive negotiations have found a viable way forward for Ethiopia without jeopardising the needs of people in the desert states downstream.  In fact it may result in water being used more effectively as less water will be lost to evaporation in the desert due to more dams holding back water in the Ethiopian highlands.

West Africa sees the Niger being a contentious point amongst many countries with Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, heavily dependant on the river but its over-usesage is seeing it increasingly polluted and un-drinkable.   Further flashpoints include the Zambezi river system being hotly contested by both Zimbabwe and Zambia and its waters being over-used by both.

The state of Kenya in East Africa faces many different challenges to that of Egypt but in the area of water, its problems are almost as similar.  It’s population of 37 million people is growing at twice the rate of India and its natural resources which should be sufficient are being pushed to the limit.  Deforestation and soil erosion mean what water does fall is not retained and the central government has until now been unable to invest in improving its water infrastructure leaving much of the country without access to clean water.  Whilst the government can’t or won’t provide a water infrastructure for the poor, it has also stopped private companies from attempting from doing so as the Kenyan authorities claim they want to protect the people from profiteering.

1st page

I really love how the magazine lay out my article. Their formatting really enhances the writing.

However, once again technology is looking to rescue people from the water poverty trap.  New hand-pumps are being trialled with technology borrowed from mobile telecommunications which send SMS text messages when the pumps break down, allowing prompt repairs.  It is expected that repair times will be reduced from 1 month to 1 day.  Researchers also anticipate that such intelligent pumps will be able to predict failures before they occur leading to planned maintenance and continuous water supplies.  Similar trials are being held in Zambia where pumps could be powered by both solar and kinetic energy, which is energy generated by the movement of the pump handle itself.

Kenya may soon benefit from the large underground aquifers discussed earlier in this article due to the discovery of Lake Lotikipi, 300 metres underground.  Its size is massive at around 100KM x 60KM, a surface area of 4,162KM squared and holding an estimated 200 billion cubic metres of water which is 900 times more than existing Kenyan water reserves and 25 times larger than the famous Loch Ness in Scotland that supplies water to much of northern Britain.  This lake alone could supply Kenya with water for over 70 years without replenishment but as water trickles into it from distant mountains, with proper management Lake Lotikipi should be a sustainable and almost limitless supply of water well into the future.

Sometimes, the solution to an areas water needs are investments or partnerships by international organisations.  In South Africa, many of the townships are still without mains water supplies and work is ongoing connecting them using the latest technology of western firms with the systems being managed and maintained by local bodies.

Middle Pages

The central pages of my article as it appears in the magazine.  In the TerraGreen devote 6 pages to my article.

Despite the fact that many African national or district governments seem unwilling or unable to invest in water supplies, there are examples that show opposite it possible given the political will. An example of this can be found in Uganda where a “pay as you fetch” scheme is in operation under the auspices of local government.  Here a water entrepreneur is given responsibility for a small number of wells.  This person has the authority to charge the sum of 100 Ugandan Shillings for each Jerry Can of water, this amount equates to 5% of average household income. A meter is installed at the well which measures consumption.  In return, the water entrepreneur is tasked with the maintenance and operation of the water wells under their authority and about 50% of the revenues raised put aside for its ten year total refurbishment.

The scheme seems to be a success and avoids the usual government dislike of managing water supplies and the tendency of aid agencies to initially build wells and then move on to build new wells rather than maintain existing ones.  By tasking individuals to take care of them, the wells are well maintained as the individual concerned is motivated not just by profit but by their livelihood as well.  It gives individuals the chance to become upwardly mobile but also stability and water independence for the village concerned.

There are still large problems that Africa must overcome but with a mixture of technology, investment and local responsibility these problems can be overcome. The most key of these remain a continued move towards democracy and local empowerment and accountability coupled with a reduction of the population growth to manageable and sustainable levels.  Only when clean and cheap water is available to all, can Africans reach their true potential and become economically active.  As with elsewhere in the world, greater household income brings increased consumption of resources including water but with the proper application of technology and careful controls there is every reason to be hopefully that despite the vagaries of climate change, this can be achieved not by destroying the environment but in many ways, improving it.

The United Nations has identified overcoming water and sanitation issues as being one of, if not the single greatest problem that must be overcome in the 21st Century.  There is more than enough water on this planet; it is just not always in the places or form that we need it but we are long past the time when the accident of where one is born should dictate our access to water.

This article was first published in the March (2014) issue of TerraGreen appearing as the Cover Story.  It was written by Stephen Liddell and is Copyright by TerraGreen.  TerraGreen is the flagship magazine of TERI, the leading Indian research institution in its field. Their website and subscription details to their excellent magazine can be found here  .

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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13 Responses to How Technology Can Help Solve The Water Crisis In Africa

  1. Congratulations on this excellent article! (Although not about water, look up the work being done in Africa through the support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. There may be some useful information there that would inspire another article about the healthy progress that is possible in Africa.)

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  2. This article is so poignant. I don’t think there is enough understanding about the limitations within our planet. An organisation that is trying to rectify this problem is the Stockholm resilience Centre. They have promoted the idea of nine planetary boundaries, and one of the planetary boundaries is water. Everyone knows that earth is the blue planet because we are covered by water. However a very small percentage of that water is drinkable. It is through re-thinking how water is used and understood as a resource that is required.

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    • Yes, a newcomer from outer space would be amazed that a planet that is almost a water-world could have so many people without easy access to water or indeed that we waste so much of it when only a tiny proportion of water in the world is drinkable. Let’s hope that in 100 years our descendants will be able to look back and think of our stupidity rather than cursing us for ruining the planet.

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  3. Amy Reese says:

    Congrats on your article, Stephen! Well done! This looks promising for Africa. Water could be become the single biggest crisis. Without water, we are in trouble. I look at our drought here in California and its implications for not just not the state, but the global economy. I’m glad to hear there’s hope.

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    • Thank-you! Yes I’ve seen about the drought in California. It might sound silly but we in the U.K. tend to go from too much rain and flooding to at least in the south, droughts too. Our droughts though really come down to overpopulation. There just too many people in and around London so that there is less rain per person than in places like Israel or Syria.

      With technology changing all our lives so radically, it is a bit of a surprise that no-one has really cracked the problem of giving water to dry areas and keeping it away from wet areas.

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  4. Rosemarie says:

    Great article. Very clear and comprehensive. I’m glad to hear there are potential solutions to the water problem. Interesting to learn about the giant aquifers in the desert regions.

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    • Thanks Rosemarie. It is fascinating isn’t it. Lets hope they use it wisely and don’t waste it all in one go like most places have done with their scarce resources like minerals or forests.

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  5. Boyer Writes says:

    Congratulations on your new book!!

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