Senegal’s capital Dakar is facing yet another water shortage, though this time concerns have been exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic and the greater need for personal hygiene.
“How do you wash your hands during a coronavirus crisis when the heat is coming?” Papa Mbodj, the father of a 9-month-old child, laments. “Water is a vital source, it is a primary need to which we are entitled.”
The issue of access to water has been plaguing Senegal and the wider region for years. Shortages have already led to several instances of civil unrest, with a recent protest ending with local law enforcement dispersing villagers with tear gas and live rounds. More than 16 people were arrested following the incident, including four suspected organizers of the civil action.
Even so, the protesters have a point: secure and sustainable access to water, and therefore sanitation and hygiene, in West and Central Africa is a persistent challenge. Less than half of schools have access to water, and less than 40 percent of them also have access to adequate sanitation. More than a third of all people across the region do not have access to safe water at any time.
Even communities who do have access to water regularly face interruptions to a clean supply. In December 2019, photos of bright orange water spurting from a tap made the rounds on social media; the brackish liquid could not even be used to wash clothes or dishes. Instead, residents reported having to line up at a water truck, where water is distributed on a “first come, first served” basis. The source of the photos? The town of Foundiougne in southern Senegal, home to nearly 7,000 residents.
In 2020, Senegalese communities are battling the same issues as they have for decades, only now they are also trying to fend off a virus that has infected more than 11 million people worldwide. Without running water, basic sanitation requirements such as frequent hand-washing are impossible to meet, exacerbating the risk of rapid virus transfer among communities at an already critical time.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called upon governments and policy makers to ensure citizens are provided with the vital infrastructure to allow for life-saving hand hygiene in the face of the novel coronavirus. As such, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has only highlighted the plight of African communities in securing access to safe water. The number of Covid-19 cases on the continent now exceeds 400,000 people, and a combination of limited healthcare facilities, high rates of HIV and tuberculosis and densely-populated slums has governments across Africa concerned about the potential spread of the coronavirus.
In Nigeria’s Lagos, authorities have responded by deploying some 100 public handwashing stations in “strategic locations.” One design “can be connected directly at public places such as markets, bus stations, hospitals and many other identifiable public places,” said Princess Aderemi Adebowale, the Special Adviser to the Lagos Governor on Civic Engagement. “Members of the public can have access to water and dispensable soap to wash their hands.”
In Kenya, authorities began distributing free sanitizer in March, while also calling on water companies not to shut down water supplies to citizens whose payments are overdue. Meanwhile, the South African government is investigating options to source groundwater and drill additional boreholes to service vulnerable communities. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, water shortages and access to clean water have become top policy priorities across Africa.
While long-term solutions are being investigated, quick fixes in this time of crisis are required to enable populations to maintain adequate access to water. An admittedly short-term – but nevertheless essential solution – is the supply of bottled water in areas where sanitation is at its lowest levels. Since bottled water is the safest option, governments in the region would be well-advised to ensure that sufficient supply is guaranteed.
At the same time, a host of innovative solutions are also being pursued by entrepreneurs and policymakers across the continent. From 3D-printed water filters to solar-powered water kiosks, the tools to solve Africa’s water crisis promise a path to development that is nothing short of fascinating. In fact, the challenge pre-coronavirus appears to have been cultivating the necessary political willpower to roll out these solutions on a large enough scale.
But now that governments are in a state of emergency and can no longer postpone such urgent developments, progress could soon become a reality. Still, in Senegal and beyond, authorities’ battles with ensuring a sustainable water supply have been compounded by constraints on physical water suppliers, rising demand and budget constraints for years.
Supplying safe drinking water and providing basic sanitation services to the entire African continent could cost up to $15 billion, according to World Bank estimates. It is little wonder, then, that the fight for access to clean water and adequate sanitation is an uphill battle that can only be won if the international community provides financial assistance for such infrastructure development projects.
Even so, there is also a very real hope that the coronavirus pandemic will finally provide the impetus for governments to invest in providing a reliable supply of potable water in earnest. “Don’t waste a good crisis,” says Inga Jacobs-Mata of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). In the case of Africa’s fight for safe and sustainable access to water, he had better be right.
Image credit: Jeff Attaway/Wikimedia Commons