While water access worldwide has been improving over the decades, water continues to be scarce in some parts of Africa, leading to several health and welfare concerns for the people who are affected. For some perspective, the average household water use per person per day is 578 liters in the United States, 334 liters in the United Kingdom, and 95 liters in Asia, but only 47 liters in Africa. Most communities in Africa suffer from a limited water supply, requiring the residents to make difficult decisions regarding their daily water consumption.
Why is Africa suffering from a lack of clean water? Well, the region of Africa is already drier than other regions as the amount of water on the earth is unevenly distributed. While most parts of the world receive an annual rainfall of 985 millimeters, South Africa receives only 492 millimeters – nearly half of the world’s average. Even within South Africa, the distribution of rainfall is uneven, with the eastern side of the country experiencing more rain than the western part. With the increase in global warming, it is expected that South Africa will be experiencing drier dry seasons and wetter wet seasons.
South Africa is also running out of its water reserves. Water is currently stored in dams across the country, but with the increasing population, the demand for water is quickly going beyond the volume stored in catchments. Building more dams and water transfer schemes is not as straightforward because they are extremely costly and the country cannot afford it.
Even the existing water reserves are at risk of becoming contaminated because of the increase in urbanization, deforestation and destruction of wetlands. As the population increases and the demand for commodities is higher, more pollution is generated, which may spill into the water reserves and decrease the quality of the water stored within. Water catchments may also be destroyed when land is cleared for building.
It is clear that clean and accessible water is important in the development of any society. Clean water is used for drinking, domestic use, healthcare, food production and recreational purposes, which can boost a country’s economy and in turn decrease poverty. The world has made steady progress in increasing the availability of clean water through the years. Since 1990, 2.6 billion more people now have access to an improved drinking water source. However, there are many left who are not so fortunate. Around the world, 1.8 billion people still depend on a drinking water source that is contaminated with feces. These people are at risk of contracting various diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and polio, which can range in severity from mild to fatal.
Contaminated water is a main culprit for the transmission of these diseases and affecting the population’s mortality rate, as it provides a prime environment for viruses and bacteria to thrive. Aside from the general population ingesting contaminated water, the problem is compounded when the contaminated water is used in healthcare facilities, a concern when considering that in low- and middle-income countries, 38 percent of healthcare facilities do not have a clean water source, 19 percent do not have improved sanitation and 35 percent do not even have soap and water for handwashing. Usage of contaminated water in healthcare facilities places both the patients and staff at risk of contracting such diseases. Patients, especially those with already compromised immune systems, are more likely to develop an infection during their hospital stay.
Of all the potential diseases one could contract from water, diarrhea is the most common. Although people in developed countries may think of diarrhea as a minor ailment, it can actually be deadly, especially in infants and young children. In 2015, 330,000 children died from diarrhea-related causes, of which more than half resided within 55 African states. Diarrhea itself may not cause death, but it often gives rise to complications that can be fatal. The most common complication is dehydration, as a lot of water is lost during diarrhea. In places without reliable access to clean water, it can be difficult for the affected person to replenish their body’s water stores. Eventually, vital organs such as the heart, lungs and brain can fail to function as a result of the loss of water and electrolytes, leading to death. Affected individuals can also suffer from malnutrition due to decreased food intake during diarrhea. Since food moves quickly through the digestive tract when the individual has diarrhea, there is less digestion and absorption of food in the digestive tract, leading to malnutrition and possibly death. However, an infected person would likely die from dehydration before malnutrition becomes fatal. While diarrhea can be serious, it is easily preventable with reliable access to clean water.
When clean water is scarce, people may also be more inclined to avoid “wasting” water by not washing their hands and utensils, thereby not observing proper hygiene. Even if people wash regularly, their water sources are likely contaminated. Either way, people can be at an increased risk of contracting diarrhea and other diseases.
Various measures have been suggested to combat the scarcity of water in Africa. For one, resource economists believe that water prices should be raised for all uses to promote more efficient use of water in all sectors. However, this raises another problem: the poor, who are usually the ones who need clean water the most, will be even less able to afford water for their daily use. Countering this problem is not as easy as providing subsidies to lower-income families, as many of these people live in rural areas where there is no easy access to piped services or irrigation.
It has been acknowledged that women play an integral role in the regulation of water resource management. In many parts of the world, women are the key people behind agricultural production, often being workers in the agricultural sector. Despite their knowledge of local biodiversity, soil and water conditions, a relatively small portion of women own land around the world. Africa is working to remedy this situation and bring women to the spotlight. In South Africa, the Water Services Act was passed in 1997 and the National Water Act in 1998, both aiming to address the gender and racial inequalities when it comes to water resource management. Since then, women have been regularly awarded for their contributions to water management, poverty eradication, education and sustainable development.
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