AFRICA : Water and power challenges in sustainable cities and regions

Despite significant economic progress, there are places where water and power supply continues to be a major challenge on the African continent. Today, new solutions mean water production and power generation can be decentralised to supply a constantly growing population.

Côte d’Ivoire now allocates a large portion of its national budget to supplying drinking water supply to its urban and regional communities. The government of this West African country launched the “Eau pour Tous” (Water for All) programme, the implementation of which will require an investment of CFA 1,320 billion (around €2.1 billion) between now and 2030. €445 million will be made available in 2020. The fact that the Ivorian government is investing such vast resources into drinking water supply shows the scale of this challenge. Drinking water supply to cities and regions is an issue in several African countries. Climate change is another challenge they are facing, and which manifests as water courses drying out in North African and across the Sahel, as well as in eastern and southern Africa, where South Africa has suffered greatly from periods of drought. A study published by Nature magazine in January 2018 indicated that almost one third of the world’s cities may face water shortages in the next seven years due to climate change, creating conflicts over the use of water in agriculture. Capetown, South Africa, experienced four long years of drought beginning in 2015. Drastic measures were put in place to reduce water consumption, and the city very nearly ran out of water.

Population growth and drinking water supply

The rapid growth of the population puts more pressure on the resource. According to the World Economic Forum, Africa is home to the youngest, fastest-growing population in the world. The continent is currently going through a demographic transition, and urbanisation is occurring at a faster pace than all other regions on the planet. The population of Africa, currently 1.1 billion, is expected to double by 2050, according to the UN. More than 80% of this increase will take place in cities, and in particular in slums. The growth will be explosive. A little-known phenomenon, revealed by Irène Salenson in L’économie africaine 2020 (AFD/La Découverte) using maps generated by Africapolis, is the staggering “rurbanisation” of the continent, meaning “the densification of rural villages which are becoming major towns”. Secondary cities are now in the spotlight, with local governments being granted greater powers and the hope of a more sustainable development model.

Access to water is also a gender and social issue

In sub-Saharan Africa, just 24% of the population has access to a secure source of drinking water and basic sanitary facilities (which aren’t shared with other households) are available to just 28% of the population, according to the UN. Furthermore, it is women and girls for the most part who take on the majority of water collection responsibilities, which takes them on average 30 minutes per day. Within countries, there are significant disparities between rich and poor. In towns and cities, disadvantaged populations who live in makeshift housing, with no running water, often pay more for water (10 to 20 times that of their neighbours in rich areas) for an equivalent or lesser service, provided by water-sellers or tanker trunks.

Decentralization and non-conventional water resources

To supply towns and cities, certain African governments place greater focus on expanding the drinking water distribution network, building new plants, which treat seawater, and facilities to pump groundwater, sometimes at risk of overuse. In regional areas, water is supplied using systems that are increasingly powered by solar energy, manually operated pumps, freshwater sources and wells dug by individuals. In certain countries with arid climates, surface water resources are rare. While surface water is in plentiful supply in most central and western African countries, it is a rare resource in arid regions in northern, eastern and southern Africa. To supply water to these areas, certain governments use non-conventional water resources. They can even be innovative, compared to certain OECD countries that are sometimes restricted by strict standards. These include seawater desalination, such as in Sfax, Tunisia, where authorities will soon begin construction on a plant that will treat seawater using reverse osmosis. The desalination station will have a daily capacity of 100,000 cubic metres, which can be increased to 200,000 cubic metres. In Namibia, one of the most arid countries on the African continent, the government is also investing in desalination with ambitious development projects for the country. In addition, Namibia began investing in wastewater recycling for drinking water several years ago, in particular in the capital Windhoek. Morocco and Tunisia are investing more and more in wastewater treatment for agriculture or green spaces. This can be seen in Greater Agadir and Tunis Bay, the new district being built near the capital. An advantage of reusing wastewater is that the resource is available in close proximity to users. In South Africa, Old Mutual, an insurance company, left Capetown’s national drinking water distribution network in 2018. This was in order to set up its own “off-grid” wastewater recycling system and transform it into drinking water. Another underlying trend that boosts the possibilities for decentralised off-grid networks is the use of solar electricity to power drinking water supply facilities. Two French start-ups are focusing on this niche: Soréa, which uses solar power to operate pumps without any conversion electronics, and Mascara Renewable Water, which installs self-sufficient solar-powered desalination plants in Africa.

Renewable energy and the challenge of power supply

According to the African Development Bank (ADB), 600 million Africans still lack access to electricity. There is a palpable sense of renewed optimism in the analyses conducted by certain observers, which indicate that the electricity industry is buoyant. Several African countries are investing in renewable energies to supply large cities and regions. In Africa, like elsewhere, hydroelectricity is the key ingredient in the renewable mix. This is proven by the dams that have been recently built, or which are being built, such as Nachtigal in Cameroon. However, climate change, which has led to a reduction in waterway flows, and the social and environmental price to pay pushes governments to seek out other solutions. Egypt has just launched small hydroelectric power stations on the Nile Delta. Most importantly, the government granted independant electricity providers the responsibility of building the Benban Solar Park in the Aswan Governorate. The park’s solar plants will power the major cities in Upper Egypt. In several other African cities, plants connected to the grid will supply energy to the people. In Mali, for example, a photovoltaic solar plant with 50 MWc of installed capacity was opened in the city of Kita to provide its population with electricity. The continent abounds with similar initiatives.

Off-grid systems in regional areas

However, due to the cost of connecting to the grid and the poor quality of existing networks, decentralised electricity generation is also a solution to supplying electricity to people in regional areas in Africa. Off-grid systems, mainly solar-powered, are particularly suited to rural areas and certain periurban areas. Today, this is also true for industries that want to ensure they have a constant supply and pay less for electricity. Off-grid solutions also include home solar kits which supply households or mini-grids of several households with electricity. These are available as pay-as-you-go offers using mobile phones (some companies are starting to develop the concept for drinking water payment solutions too). Lastly, containerized mini-grids, which are easy to set up, are becoming more popular in East Africa (in particular in Zambia) and certain rural areas in Mali in West Africa.

Jean Marie Takouleu