This is a strange one: Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink in Africa

The drier a country is, the more (not less) likely its people have a steady supply of water in their homes

IT’S totally counter-intuitive, but if you want to live in a country where you are nearly certain that you will have water flowing in your taps throughout the year, live in a dry desert country in Africa.

The drier a country is, the more (not less) likely its people have a steady supply of water in their homes, shows the latest data comparisons from Afrobarometer and the World Bank, as the world marks World Water Day today.

Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa, all of which record less than 500mm of rainfall a year, have less than one in four saying they go without water “always” or “several times”.

Conversely, some of the wettest countries in Africa, such as Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Guinea and Madagascar have more than 50% of survey respondents saying they are forced to make do without sufficient water, even if these countries have an annual precipitation rate in the region of 1,500mm a year.

The likely reason is that if you’re living in a dry country, water is a high priority for everyone, so governments will invest in dams, reservoirs and piped water systems as a matter of necessity.

Water and social bribery

It also helps that the arid countries in Africa tend to be wealthy, thanks to oil, gas and mineral deposits, and governments supply water as a way of spreading around natural resource revenues and keeping people happy.

But on the other hand, countries with abundant rainfall never have to face the fear of running out of water, and so creating water conservation systems and piping water into people’s homes is not so much of a priority. Something akin to an “abundance curse” sets in.

The result is that much of the rainwater ends up being surface run-off, so paradoxically, the majority of Afrobarometer survey respondents in these countries say that they go without water “always” or “several times”.

AFrica’s water paradox | Create infographics

For the majority of Africans, water has to be fetched outside the home, with 54% saying their primary source of water is outside their home compound.

One in four gets their water from the comfort of a tap inside the home, but this average figure masks great disparity.

In Uganda, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Burundi and Tanzania, just 2% say their primary source of water is inside the house, while in Mauritius, Egypt and Algeria, it’s over 93%.

Generally, rural residents are more likely to go without water than their urban counterparts, the survey data shows. The greatest rural-urban gaps are in Swaziland (32 percentage points), Botswana (32 points), South Africa (30 points) and Burkina Faso (29 points).

These countries are dry, so eking out a rural existence on the land is difficult, and people band together in towns where services are more accessible – hence the big gaps in service provision.

But there are some countries that go against expectations in that urban residents are worse off than rural ones, with the data from Cape Verde, Zimbabwe and Liberia showing a disparity that exceeds the survey’s margin of error.

In Cape Verde, urban respondents were 21 percentage points less likely to have a steady water supply than rural ones, in Zimbabwe it’s 18 points, and Liberia 6 points.

This suggests urban neglect, and probably that urban slum areas are particularly underserved.

A majority (55%) of Africans are dissatisfied with how their respective governments are handling water and sanitation issues, describing it as “fairly bad” or “very bad”.

The data shows that as expected, those who suffer water shortages will give their government a poor rating in its handling of water and sanitation issues.

Egypt is an outlier

But Egypt is an interesting outlier, and it reveals that keeping people happy isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Negative ratings of the government’s handling of water issues were highest in Egypt, with 78% of respondents grumbling, followed by Cameroon at 75%.

In Cameroon’s case, makes sense that people would be so unhappy, more than four in ten respondents – the highest among the countries surveyed – said they “always” went without water.

But for Egypt, that applies for just 12% of respondents, with the majority saying they never had to suffer through a water shortage.

So what are Egyptians complaining about? The answer is corruption.

More than a third (36%) of Egyptians said they had to pay a bribe to obtain a water or sanitation service in the past year, the highest among countries surveyed and second only to Sierra Leone, at 32%.

A report by UN-Habitat says that in general, Northern Africa’s systems of urban governance remain too inflexible to respond to popular demands with the necessary speed and agility.

Well-established networks of bureaucratic power and privilege have become “entrenched to a degree that makes their replacement difficult”, even in the face of massive unrest.

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