top of page
  • Writer's pictureDeepa Rao

Africa, an epicentre of global water scarcity is socially induced- facts to know

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Water scarcity is frequently caused by factors other than a physical lack of water. Socially-induced water shortage is a more common cause of people's lack of access in Africa. There are various aspects of water scarcity, including the infrastructural and socio-economic elements that can amplify one another to exclude particular communities.

When we think of water scarcity, we often think of dry rivers, dams, and taps, as well as long lines at water stations. Changes in weather patterns and climatic circumstances, which restrict the supply of pure fresh water, are linked to water shortages. However, physical shortage is not the main reason for water scarcity, which can occur even in areas where freshwater is plentiful. Water scarcity affects the majority of people in Africa as a result of subtle kinds of exclusion based on income position, geographic location, gender, and political affiliation, degree of education, nationality, or race. Poor governance, weak public institutions, and unequal power relations exacerbate this sort of socially-induced water scarcity.

Every day, we hear in the news about the increasing demand on water resources as the world's population grows, as well as the detrimental repercussions of climate change. According to current estimates, the world's population grew 4.4 times from just over 1.6 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion in 2010. While freshwater resources have stayed nearly constant over the same time span, water withdrawal has increased by 7.3 times. According to these projections, there is increasing demand on limited water supplies, which has resulted in water shortages in some cases. In 2016, it was reported that 2.7 billion people face water shortages for at least a month each year, with 70 percent of the world's population expected to face moderate to severe water shortages by 2050.

Although the amount of water removed from the environment per person in Africa is still the lowest in the world, the urban population has been continuously increasing, with some nations seeing rapid growth. Africa's population grew from 613.5 million to 1.21 billion people between 1990 and 2016. According to a recent study, the urban population of Africa expanded from 27 million in 1950 to 567 million in 2015. By 2050, Africa's urban population is predicted to reach over 950 million people, putting greater strain on water resources. Water consumption is expected to climb even faster as living standards and wages improve.

According to the 2016 African Economic Outlook, the number of individuals with improved water sources increased by 232 million between 1990 and 214, but many more people still lack or have restricted access to safe drinking water. Most of these estimates use aggregate national data that do not reflect the reality of the majority of people, particularly in rural and peri-urban areas, who have limited access to water.

Despite the abundance, there are shortages. The remarkable contradiction is that in water-stressed African countries, the proportion of people with access to water is higher. Water-stressed countries in North Africa (especially Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Mauritania) and Southern Africa (especially Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana) provide water to a higher proportion of people than countries with abundant water resources, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Angola, Niger, South Sudan, and Tanzania. Despite the fact that Cape Town is located in a low-rainfall area with annual average rainfall of less than 500 millimeters, resulting in low freshwater endowment, the city provides clean water to a much higher proportion of its residents than Kampala, Kinshasa, Lagos, Lomé, Lusaka, or Yaonde, which have better freshwater resources.

As a result, it is clear that the problem of water scarcity cannot be attributed solely to the physical absence of water resources in the natural environment; water shortages can occur even in areas where fresh water is plentiful. Under many African cities and countries with abundant fresh water resources, a large section of the population lives in perpetual water scarcity.

Water scarcity can be caused by a variety of causes other than the quantity of water in the natural environment, so it's vital to break down the many dimensions of the problem, taking into consideration both environmental and socioeconomic variables. A disaggregated view of water constraint serves to highlight the socio economic nuances that contribute to water scarcity. Examining multiple levels of water scarcity helps to reveal a more complex water story.

Water scarcity dimensions

The inadequacy of water in the natural environment is referred to as first-order water shortage. It emphasizes the fact that accessible water supplies are limited, whether in terms of volume or the fight to fulfil present and future demands. Northern and southern Africa, the Middle East, and areas of Central Asia are all suffering from acute first-order scarcity.

Second-order scarcity frequently refers to a lack of financial resources to ensure that everyone has access to upgraded water sources. Failure to invest in or repair water infrastructure, for example, might result in a community's water supply being limited or unavailable, even while fresh water is plentiful. Even when the colony is near a well-stocked water supply, many people living in informal communities in African towns face water shortages.

Institutional arrangements and mechanisms that mediate access to water for home or non-domestic use are referred to as third-order scarcity. For many individuals, the way institutions are set up and run can create hurdles to accessing water resources. Even in settings where there are ample water supplies and appropriate resources for water infrastructure, third-order scarcities function at a macro level, where some actions or lack thereof lead to some individuals living in conditions of scarcity. It is typical to encounter people in the same city with varying levels of water availability.

In most African cities, for example, people of informal settlements face different types of water scarcity than residents of formal and high-cost districts. Residents in informal and low-income communities struggle to acquire water services in cities like Cape Town, where the average water access ratio implies that just a small percentage of the population lacks basic access to water. As a result of weak infrastructure, they frequently face irregular water supply, slow response times to water problems, and substandard water services.

The fourth-order scarcity emerges due to social ties between distinct groups of people, not because of a lack of water or insufficient infrastructure. Some people struggle to get water because they have no or little money, because they reside in a poor neighbourhood, because they are refugees, foreigners, women, or because the bulk of the community members support a specific political party (typically the opposition), and so on. In this sense, fourth-order scarcity is the most subtle, as it frequently acts at a micro level and, as a result, is often overlooked by public policy.

Although many people in Africa live in areas where first-order scarcity is common, the majority of people live in areas where the other three categories of scarcity (socially induced) are common. These scarcity orders, on the other hand, should not be seen in a hierarchical fashion, in which one order is given priority over the others, because they frequently reinforce each other.

Talk to our experts at Maithri who are not only addressing, but solving global water problems. Read our global stories on -

77 views0 comments


bottom of page