Feb 11, 2020

Reflecting on Africa's Water Supply

A deeper look into Africa's water resources    

Munyaradzi Tichaona

I am by education, training and professional experience, a civil engineer. After several years, I began to realize that due to mismanagement, bad practices and climate change, Africa is facing serious water-resource challenges. The population of Africa is divided between the subsistence rural people and the urbanized modern economically employed workers. Both are impacted by the current water situation, but in different ways. The rural population depends on rainfall, flowing rivers and levels of groundwater tables. The urbanized population depends on systems of directing, collecting and delivery water for various uses in modern urban settings. Both groups are at risk.The eastern and southern parts of the continent have many of the longest rivers on the planet with expansive drainage basins. The existence of these rivers is rainfall from highland regions. 

Crop production along the banks of rivers is year-round because of availability of water and temperatures. 

Domestic usage is facilitated by flowing rivers, streams or wells supported by high water tables. 

The downside to this natural resource is drought and pollution. Without crucial water resources, the rural population begins to migrate to modern urban areas. An examination of the modern urban population shows it must depend on more sophisticated systems and organization of the natural water resources in order to survive and thrive. That would mean pumping directly from altered river flows, artificially replenished lakes or reservoirs or pumping from deep boreholes. However, we must also add to the equation the need for hydraulically created energy for both domestic and industrial uses. 

Briefly, the modern sector produces employment opportunities and various social, educational and health benefits, but at what cost? Alluvial mining is a source of income for many African nations, but the use of harmful substances and metals is a pollution challenge. The clearing of natural habitats and the creation of impervious surfaces leads to flooding. Large dam schemes for hydro-electricity production can disrupt normal downstream uses.  Water tables are lowered by industrial demands compounded by lack of rainfall, uncontrolled runoff and contaminated sources. 

A Specific Look at Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has adequate climatic conditions for robust agriculture production which does well by irrigation and rainwater. Due to poor water management systems, a lot of water is lost through evaporation and flash flood runoff. A concerted approach is needed for the production of food to meet the rising demand of the ever-increasing population. Zimbabwe, like many countries on the African continent, is currently experiencing challenges. 

The water infrastructure, including dams and water treatment plants, was built in the late 1950s. Harare, the capital city, is built on a high plateau, and the main source of water supply is in the surrounding low lands, making the cost of treating and transporting potable water expensive. There is abnormal water wastage due to inadequate investment in and rehabilitation of the poorly maintained pipe system. Water borne diseases, such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery, have become rampant. Individuals privately drill boreholes throughout the capital city to circumvent the water shortages. Policies regarding environmental protection are not effectively enforced. The mass rural-to-urban migration is a cause of labor supply outstripping demand, which results in 90% unemployment and associated poverty. Industrial waste and sewage discharge is not controlled. Even though Zimbabwe claims to be using a minimum of 11 chemicals to treat the public water supply, it still comes out green. The basic fundamental right to clean water supply is not a luxury to be taken for granted but a fundamental right for which we must plan and execute in order to survive.

About the author

Munyaradzi Tichaona is founder and civil engineer for Rosewood Contracting International. He can be reached at [email protected]