Cities without water: The frightening future of Africa's urban areas

The imminent rise of water mafias and water wars...

THE World’s 12th largest mega city, Sao Paulo, is running out of water. As expected the impact on the city’s 20 million Paulistanos (as the city’s residents are called) is life-altering. 

The water shortage has been brought on by several factors; climate change, water mismanagement, Amazonian deforestation and accelerated by the worst drought the Southern coast of Brazil has experienced in 80 years. 

This has meant that for six months now, the Paulistanos were suddenly thrust into a world of un-flushing toilets and filth and they are grappling in any way they can to cope with the extreme water rationing. Sometimes is lasts four days - and there is no end in sight. 

Living in Nairobi, Kenya, the notion of four days of water rationing doesn’t seem like anything to get up in knots about. The water in my home has been rationed for three days a week for over ten years now and you quickly learn to adapt - water tanks are installed, water bowsers ordered, toilets aren’t flushed and bathwater is saved.

What is concerning though is that the population of Nairobi is projected to rise from about 5 million now as to as many as 8 million residents by the end of the decade, and 14 million by 2050. 

This type of growth is typical of Africa’s cities. Over the next 20 years, the urban population of Sub-Saharan Africa is set to double and at 3.9% per year, urban population growth rates in Africa have been and will continue to be the highest in the world. Currently Cairo, Kinshasa and Lagos are the only mega-cities in Africa, but three more are expected to emerge by 2030, as Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Johannesburg (South Africa), and Luanda (Angola) are each projected to surpass the 10m mark. 

Needless to say, the population growth will put an increasing strain on water availability which is already an area of concern as industry, climate change and declining quality has already seen water demand increase at a higher rate than population growth.

There are certain scenarios that could emerge when water taps begin to run increasingly dry across Africa’s major cities. A situation which looks set to be worse than Sao Paulo’s  considering the vast number of Africans living in urban slums, and the majority of cities in the continent that have poorly-run utilities and lack solid waste management, and have poor drainage.

For those living in slums the challenge of water will revolve around water storage. In cities around the tropics, there will be outbreaks of dengue fever and higher levels of malaria from water that has not been adequately stored. 

Outbreaks of violence 

If they do not have the ability to store water, there will be incredibly long water queues to distribution areas and, without the guarantee that water will in fact even be available when they get to the front, tensions will be high. Outbreaks of violence in and around these areas will be common - as was demonstrated by Brazil’s experience in 2014. In Itu, a city 100km from São Paulo a desperate water shortage in late 2014 led to fighting in queues, the theft of water, and the looting of emergency water trucks, which then had to be accompanied by armed civil guards.

Without running water, residents will be forced to find alternative methods of keeping clean. For those who live near a body of water, such as the Ocean or a lake, people will start moving in droves in the early morning and evening to wash - as was the case in 2013 in Dakar, during a water shortage, caused by faulty infrastructure; residents were bathing in the ocean and dug makeshift wells along the beach. 

This will lead to outbreaks of illnesses. In many, aside from Namibia, Senegal, and South Africa that report universal coverage by sewerage systems, in most other African countries, sewerage serves less than 10% of urban areas. In some cities there isn’t even a mechanism to cope with wastewater. For example Luanda, a city of over 4 million people, discharges all the collected wastewater untreated into the sea outfall. 

For the wealthier inhabitants of a city, when the taps run dry there will be a few more options. Wet wipes will be a major business, and expected to sell-out, and swimming pools will be quickly emptied to flush toilets. 

Bottled water will also be used for household chores which will cause their prices to skyrocket - in Sao Paulo over the last few months, the price of bottled water shot up from from 2.50 reais (88 cents) to 3.50 ($1.08) in Sao Paulo. 

Water mafia

The wealthier residents will also fuel a water black market which will give rise to water mafias. This has been seen in cities like New Delhi. Every year the Indian city experiences a hot season water shortage that results in an estimated 2,000 illegal tankers driving round the city, providing millions of inhabitants with loads of dubious water drawn illegally from the city’s groundwater. We are already beginning to see this trend on the continent; in Maseru, Lesotho, household resellers provide water to 31% of the population. 

These mafias fuel high-level corruption, paying off officials and police officers to access water, and can lead to water wars between mafias and residents. In Sao Paulo, instead of bringing the Paulistanos together, the lack of water perpetuated chaos. 

Neighbours turned against one another in apartment blocks when discussing payments of water bowser services, with some suggesting older people should pay more because they are home longer. The lack of water will also drive inhabitants of Africa’s cities to all sorts of water theft, as was seen occurring in California where residents are stealing thousands of gallons of water from schools, clinics, and fire hydrants. 

The lack of water is going to come at a high price at all levels, but particularly to the most vulnerable - and to the economy of the city itself. Water scarcity harms production and hence income in cities. The notion of Africa rising, built on the back of its growing urban population, vibrant cities and middle class, looks to be severely challenged unless coping strategies and effective infrastructure is put in place. Fortunately, for many cities, there is still time to avoid this apocalypse. 


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