How African Diseases are Connected to Water Pollution


ABUJA, Nigeria — The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that a full 28 percent of Africa’s disease burden is a result of environmental factors such as contaminated water, which causes diarrheal disease, and air pollution that causes respiratory illness.

The report notes that lack of access to adequate clean water, sanitation and hygiene accounts for 10 percent of the disease burden in Africa and that many of the affected are children. Only 19 of Africa’s 54 countries are on target to meet the water and sanitation Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of the population that do not have access to basic water and sanitation.

Sources of drinking water in Africa are ground-water, surface waters (e.g., streams, lakes and rivers) and sometimes rainfall. Dependence on each source varies with factors such as availability and proximity of a type of source, degree of urbanization and level of infrastructure development.

The extent to which surface water and groundwater quality in Africa is affected by development activities has not been extensively studied or reported.

However, a few published reports provide some insight into potential sources of pollution and the likely extent of the problem. The “Africa Environment Outlook” report (UNEP 2002) identifies ground water pollution from nitrates, phosphates and chemical residues used in Africa as a concern, particularly in countries that are highly dependent on underground aquifers for drinking water.

In another report focused on the Zambezi River Basin of South Africa, several point and nonpoint sources of pollution that affect both surface water and groundwater quality, including sewage-treatment facilities, pulp and paper mills, fertilizer factories, textile and cloth manufacturing entities, mining activities, agriculture and chemical industries.

There is also an estimated annual release of about 93,000 metric tons of industrial waste into the Zambezi River from these activities. Like many major rivers in Africa, the Zambezi River is an important water resource.

In 2005, a collaborative effort between the University of Nairobi and UNEP (UON/UNEP 2005) collected voluntary wastewater effluent data from industries that discharge into the Nairobi River Basin in Kenya; some industries in one division reported effluent concentrations for chromium (2,400 mg/L), nickel (59 mg/L), Cu (580 mg/L), and Pb (120 mg/L) that were much higher than recommended local effluent guidelines.

Specifically, the report indicated that reported concentrations for Ni, Cu, and Pb were 60, 600 and 120 times higher than the local recommended effluent guidelines, respectively.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2000, only 59% of the world’s population had access to adequate sanitation systems, and efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goal, which is aiming for 75% by the year 2015, will fall short by nearly half a billion people.

The situation of access to clean water and sanitation in rural Africa is even more dismal than the previous statistics imply. The WHO stated that, in 2004, only 16% of people in sub-Saharan Africa had access to drinking water through a household connection (an indoor tap or a tap in the yard). Not only is there poor access to readily accessible drinking water, even when water is available in these small towns, there are risks of contamination due to several factors.

When wells are built and water sanitation facilities are developed, they are improperly maintained due to limited financial resources. Water quality testing is not performed as often as is necessary, and lack of education among the people utilizing the water source leads them to believe that as long as they are getting water from a well, it is safe.

Once a source of water has been provided, quantity of water is often given more attention than quality of water.

There are limited sources of water available to provide clean drinking water to the entire population of Africa. Surface water sources are often highly polluted, and infrastructure to pipe water from fresh, clean sources to arid areas is too costly of an endeavor. Groundwater is the best resource to tap to provide lean water to the majority of areas in Africa, especially rural Africa and groundwater has the benefit of being naturally protected from bacterial contamination and is a reliable source during droughts.

However, researchers have observed that the high costs associated with drilling for water, and the technical challenges in finding sources that are large enough to serve the population in need, present challenges that limit tapping the resource. Groundwater is not a fail-safe resource, either, when it comes to providing clean water. There may be contamination of the water with heavy metals, and bacteria may be introduced by leaking septic systems or contaminated wells.

For these reasons, it is important that groundwater be monitored frequently, which is costly and requires technical abilities that may not be present in rural areas.

According to other observers, the implications of lack of clean water and access to adequate sanitation are widespread. Young children die from dehydration and malnutrition, results of suffering from diarrheal illnesses that could be prevented by clean water and good hygiene. Diseases such as cholera are spread rampantly during the wet season. Women and young girls, who are the major role-players in accessing and carrying water, are prevented from doing income-generating work or attending school, as the majority of their day is often spent walking miles for their daily water needs.

They are also at an increased risk for violence since they travel such great distances from their villages on a daily basis, and are even at risk when they must go to the edge of the village to find a private place to relieve themselves.

Urban areas face a whole different host of challenges to providing clean water and sanitation. Rapid growth of urban areas, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, has led to large volumes of water being extracted from existing sources. The influx of water, in addition to the influx in human waste, has outpaced the development of wastewater management systems, which has led to pollution of natural water bodies, unintentional use of wastewater in irrigated agriculture, irregular water supply and environmental concerns for aquatic life due to the high concentration of pollutants flowing into water bodies.

Overcrowding in urban slums makes it even more difficult to control sanitation issues and disease outbreaks associated with exposure to raw sewage. It has been reported that underprivileged urban populations pay exorbitant amounts of money for water, which is often not even suitable for consumption, while resources allocated to those living in the wealthy urban areas are heavily subsidized, meaning the wealthy pay less for cleaner water and better sanitation systems.

However, an international public and stakeholder opinion research firm and Sustain Ability, (a think tank and business strategy consultancy) have recently conducted a survey poll on water and listed the 19 best solutions to the global freshwater crisis from their findings.

This survey was conducted in more than 80 countries. Some 1,200 influential thought leaders from companies, governments, NGOs, and academia said that multi-faceted engagement with water will be required for companies and governments to effectively manage businesses and communities. The new Sustain Ability and Globe Scan survey comes six months after a Circle of Blue/Globe Scan survey of 15,000 people in 15 countries found that water scarcity and water pollution are the top environmental concerns in the world.


Solutions to the Water Crises:

•       Education to change consumption / lifestyle
•       New innovation to water conservation technologies
•       Recycling / water treatment systems
•       Improved irrigation technologies / agricultural practices
•       Appropriate pricing / water rights markets
•       Energy efficient desalination plants
•       Water catchment / harvesting
•       Community-based governance / partnerships
•       Better government policies / regulations
•       Holistic management of ecosystems
•       Improved distribution infrastructure
•       Corporate water footprinting / sustainable manufacturing
•       International policy frameworks / institutional cooperation
•       Address pollution to improve quality of water
•       Public common resources / equitable access
•       Research &Development / Innovation
•       Water projects in developing countries / transfer of technology
•       Climate change mitigation
•       Population growth control

Adama Dickson Salami

Sources: Spotlight Africa: Rural and Urban Issues , New Security Beat , Environ Health Perspect , For Love of Water
Photo: Aqua Aid for Africa


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