Hundreds of thousands of people in Africa are dying because governments have failed to provide safe toilets and water
The number of people in Africa lacking access to safe sanitation is rising, despite repeated promises by the continent’s national leaders to tackle the problem.
Poor sanitation is causing hundreds of thousands of deaths a year in Africa, where 600 million people – about 70% of the population – do not have a safe toilet, according to NGO WaterAid. That number is up 210m from 1990, largely because the continent’s population has increased and more people have moved to urban slums, where there has been no corresponding increase in sanitation.
At the current rate, the millennium development goal of halving the number of people living with dangerously poor sanitation by 2015 will not be met in Africa until the middle of the next century.
Funding for sanitation services is falling well short of the commitments made by governments, according to WaterAid’s latest report, entitled “Keeping promises: why African leaders need now to deliver on their past water and sanitation commitments” (pdf). Under the eThekwini declaration of 2008, African governments pledged to spend at least 0.5% of GDP on sanitation and hygiene, but only one state – Equatorial Guinea – has met that target. Many national leaders have also set their own targets, but few of these are on track.
John Garrett, senior policy analyst at WaterAid, said one of the problems was that governments were prioritising other areas of need, such as health and education. However, when people do not have access to adequate sanitation and clean water, money spent on health and education is often wasted because people fall ill from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea.
This restricts the potential for growth in affected countries, since people are frequently unable to work; the lost productivity amounts to billions each year. According to estimates from the UN Development Programme, the shortfall in water and sanitation services costs sub-Saharan African countries about 5% of GDP a year. In 2010, this equated to about $55bn – over a 10th more than the $48bn provided in development aid to the whole continent in the same year.
Aid donors also tend to prioritise other policy areas, to the detriment of spending on water and sanitation. The problem is compounded because, in many African countries, responsibility for water infrastructure is often shared by several different ministries.
Donor funding for sanitation amounts to about $9bn annually, but WaterAid is urging donor countries to double those sums. Doing so will help African countries’ economies to progress, and save money in health and education, the NGO argues.
“Africans waste over 40bn hours every year looking for somewhere to go to the toilet, and you can add to this the costs of illness and medical bills of those contracting diseases due to the unhygienic conditions,” said Nelson Gomonda, pan-Africa project manager at WaterAid. “Now is the time for African governments to meet their financial commitments on sanitation, and end sanitation and water poverty and their daily toll on human life, health and livelihoods.”