Originally published on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, where our regular Afrobarometer series explores Africans’ views on democracy, governance, quality of life, and other critical topics.
In March, government, civil society, and private sector leaders gathering for the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal will try to move the world toward the United Nations’ sixth Sustainable Development Goal: universal access to safe water and sanitation.
With billions of people still lacking these basic necessities, it’s an ambitious goal. The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that our current rate of progress would need to quadruple to meet the 2030 target. According to these agencies, progress is particularly slow in sub-Saharan Africa.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added urgency to advocacy for expanding access to clean water needed for handwashing as an important preventive measure against the coronavirus, as well as other infectious diseases. And climate change is heightening water and sanitation concerns as increasingly frequent storms, floods, and droughts threaten access to these critical services.
But will the pandemic and climate change boost clean-water efforts — or divert resources and delay progress? A decade of Afrobarometer data on access to clean water and sanitation in Africa reveals remarkably little progress toward the U.N. targets.
Deteriorating access to clean water
On some indicators, Africa’s water situation actually appears to be worsening, according to Afrobarometer surveys. Results from 48,084 face-to-face interviews in 34 African countries in 2019-2021 show that more than half of Africans have experienced shortages of clean water in the past year, and one in seven have no access to sanitation facilities of any kind. The numbers of people experiencing these privations are growing — and citizens express considerable disappointment with government efforts to address them.
Obtaining clean water is a daily challenge for an increasing number of African households. Across 34 countries, more than half (56%) of survey respondents say they went without enough clean water at least once in the year preceding the survey, including 43% who suffered this form of poverty “several times,” “many times” or “always.”
Experiences vary widely by country: While fewer than one-fourth of Ghanaians (22%) and Moroccans (24%) report going without enough water, shortages affected more than three-fourths of citizens in Gabon (79%), Guinea (78%), and Cameroon (78%).
Across 30 countries Afrobarometer has surveyed on these issues for the past decade, the proportion of respondents who experienced water shortages increased from 49% to 54%. As shown in the figure below, the number who reported experiencing water shortages rose in 18 countries, including jumps of 19 percentage points in Benin, 18 points in Guinea, and 15 points in Senegal. Only three countries show significant improvement, with surveys showing that fewer people experienced shortages: Tanzania (a decrease of 23 percentage points), Burkina Faso (down 12 points), and Ghana (down 8 points).
How often do households lack enough clean water for daily needs? | 30 countries | 2011-2021
Percentage of respondents who went without enough clean water for home use during the previous year.
Stagnation on sanitation
Afrobarometer surveys also document little progress on broadening access to sanitation. Across 34 countries, one-third (34%) of Africans surveyed report having a toilet in their home, and another 37% use a toilet or latrine elsewhere in their compound. This leaves nearly one-third (29%) having to go outside their compound, including 14% who say they do not have access to toilet facilities at all.
Toilets in the home are almost universal in Morocco (95%) and Mauritius (93%). But a majority of citizens don’t have a toilet or latrine in their home or compound in these seven countries: Niger (65%), Malawi (59%), Uganda (58%), Liberia (57%), Benin (56%), Ghana (53%), and Ethiopia (50%). Indeed, in Niger, a majority (59%) of citizens report having no access to a toilet or latrine at all.
While access to toilets inside the home increased from 30% to 35% over the past decade, in some countries open defecation appears to be on the rise, given an average 5-percentage-point rise in the number of people who report having no access to any sanitation facilities, whether inside or outside their compound. As shown in the figure below, 13 of 30 countries have seen increases of 5 percentage points or more in survey respondents reporting no access to toilets or latrines, while only one country, Namibia, saw a decrease of at least 5 points.
No access to toilets/latrines | 30 countries | 2011-2021
Percentage of respondents in 2011/2013 and 2019/2021 Afrobarometer surveys who said they have no access to a toilet or latrine, even outside their home or compound. (Niger data for 2011/2013 is not shown due to possible measurement error.)
Africans expect more from government
Under these circumstances, it’s no surprise that water and sanitation are priority issues for Africans. Water supply ranks fifth among the most important problems that people want their governments to address, after unemployment, health, education, and infrastructure/roads. Guineans, who experience some of the highest levels of water deprivation, are particularly concerned: Almost two-thirds (65%) cite water supply as one of their top three priorities.
In light of these shortcomings in infrastructure and access, fewer than half (41%) of Africans give their government a passing grade on water and sanitation. As the figure below indicates, about two-thirds of survey respondents approve of their government’s performance in Tanzania (67%) and Botswana (64%) — while fewer than one in four agree their government is providing adequate water and sanitation services in Sudan (12%), Guinea (15%), Gabon (18%), and Liberia (22%).
Government performance in providing water and sanitation services | 34 countries | 2019/2021
Percentage of survey respondents who say their government is handling the provision of water and sanitation services “fairly well” or “very well.”
Alongside the daily struggles that these survey findings suggest, Africans may find that water crises like those experienced recently in Cape Town, South Africa and Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire also become more frequent. In these cases, governments and development partners showed they can respond effectively in an emergency.
Pressures from a pandemic and from climate change seem likely to strengthen citizens’ demands for action before things get to that point.