How Africa can leapfrog the world’s stagnant water paradigm

Photo credit: FrankRamspott/iStock

Africa has an unprecedented opportunity to embrace widespread water innovation. IWA is poised to help catalyse this, and to share the lessons globally in a two-way exchange with its African partners, writes Kala Vairavamoorthy.

Earth’s oldest continent has long evoked wonder. Yet that ancient proverb, “Africa always brings forth something new”, today resonates most in escalating challenges – and solutions – to water.

No other region is booming so fast. In 15 years, the number of working-age Africans will eclipse that of the rest of the world combined. In three decades, one in every four humans will be African. Since 2000, half of the highest growth rate countries have come from Africa. By 2030, increased literacy and web access will fuel vast pools of latent talent to push 43% of Africans into middle and upper classes, with household consumption reaching $2.5 trillion.

Such explosive development brings growing pains. Billions of younger, wealthier Africans will need far more homes, meals, jobs, roads, energy, and above all, fresh water. That water is now increasingly at risk. Across the continent, sudden deluges punctuate extended droughts amidst rising temperatures. Volatility and stress undermine the decades-old dominant ‘western’ paradigms for water storage, use, allocation, sanitation, disposal and treatment, even as Africa’s families, firms and farms compound unprecedented thirst.

Africa’s leapfrog opportunity

Yet there’s a unique but fleeting opportunity in Africa, to change the way she thinks about water. To ask: what is water good for – its productive use? How is water used – and reused? Should water systems and their accompanying infrastructure and services be centralised or decentralised, linear or circular? Africa has a clean slate and could answer these questions by itself. African scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers are, after all, uniquely suited to solve Africa’s problems. Who needs more foreign consultants to parachute in with expensive generic advice? On the other hand, with the right strategic partner, Africa could tap ‘best-in-class’ experience from 130 countries, avoid repeating the same mistakes made by industrialised nations, leverage cutting edge tools and techniques to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG6) for water and sanitation, and unlock the continent’s rise and resilience against escalating thirst.

IWA can help Africa re-imagine its water by sharing knowledge

For decades, the International Water Association (IWA) has wrestled with hard questions about water, and recognised opportunities that arise from answering them. It has been addressing important and urgent water challenges whenever and wherever they arise, from ridge to reef and from catchment to tap. Now, at the dawn of the Golden Age of water and sanitation, IWA can help Africa re-imagine its water by sharing knowledge – the innovations in science and practice – that underpins a ‘new normal’ in water management. In an ambitious but achievable endeavour, IWA’s new Strategic Plan for 2019-2024 makes a strong commitment to support water professionals and the sector at large throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

In short, Africa’s innovators and institutions can, through a pragmatic alliance with IWA, develop nimble and affordable ways to ‘leapfrog’ the legacy of clunky, costly, centralised, top-down policies and infrastructure that burden much of the world.

Growing our catalytic partnership

IWA already has established roots in the continent. We have a strong relationship with the African Water Association (AfWA), with both associations sharing several Board Members and regularly exchanging knowledge and best practices. IWA also draws support from nine African Governing Members, two African Board Members, and a cohort of the continent’s Young Water Professionals (YWPs). But we can do more and grow faster together. Indeed, to help achieve SDG6 through bottom-up knowledge sharing and technology transfer, IWA’s five-year Strategic Plan seeks to aggressively expand branches throughout Africa’s thirsty cities and rural landscapes, increase its membership in Africa, expand IWA’s Governing Member representation in the continent, and establish new chapters of YWPs.

Together we can meet water-related SDGs through the strategic deployment of shared assets. For example, to help catalyse innovation, knowledge and best practices, IWA can offer its partner 24/7 access to 50 specialist groups, clusters, task groups and programmes. In turn, AfWA can infuse the larger network with Africa’s unique and rich experiences, increasing the value of each dynamic living asset.

Our partnership can support utility performance efficiency and effectiveness certification, through AquaRating, so that Africa’s cities can bridge the financial gap in the water and sanitation sector. We will ensure Africa’s large and small water suppliers, regulatory officials, catchment management authorities, and public health institutions incorporate the best water safety plans. Our alliance can harness SDG6 for Africa’s informal urban and rural communities through the world-class, university-based, policy-transforming REACH water security programme.

This strategic agenda is not about altruism. Rather, IWA seeks a healthy return for all its members on investing in African partnerships, gaining new knowledge and rich value from Africa’s experience as its leaders transition to a new vision of water management. When it comes to water solutions, the richest, most dynamic currents flow both ways.

Necessity drives African innovation

Ecological reserves for preserving river ecosystems. Enshrining in a national constitution the human right to water and sanitation. The rise of sani-preneurs. Wave energy-powered reverse osmosis. Elegant and frugal innovations for non-sewered sanitation. Boosting runoff through invasive weed eradication. Motivated by the proverbial ‘mother of invention’, Africa’s necessities have for decades brought novel policies and innovations like these to the world stage.

The extent of necessity keeps intensifying! It presses down like an iron. African countries from Mauritania to Madagascar and from Sudan to Namibia already face unnaturally high water risks. Further concentrating climate and demographic impacts, Africa is urbanising faster than any other continent. While large, dense, wealthy urban cores may attract investment and afford better services, that’s not the case outside metro limits, or in slums.

Too many African utilities are dragged into a downward performance spiral, where weak assets bring deteriorating service, which erodes trust and legitimacy. Half of families in low-income areas lack basic water and sanitation infrastructure, undermining health, dignity and human development. Among the many wastewater treatment plants constructed, few still work. In 2011, Ashley Murray and Pay Drechsel found “failure is the norm” in Ghana, where only 10 out of 70 plants were operating effectively. Groundwater extraction and long-distance water transfers result in unacceptable social and environmental costs. NASA recently reported that eight major aquifers in Africa experienced little to no recharge to offset water withdrawals between 2003 and 2013.

By teaming up, IWA and African water leaders can reverse this vicious cycle into a virtuous one. Together, we can discover countless ways to achieve SDG6 targets, prioritise serving the unserved, and reimagine the future of water and sanitation. How? Much as an empty room inspires fresh possibilities about new potential, the lack of mature infrastructure or strict governance across Africa may in fact reveal… a competitive advantage.

Competitive advantages

Africa’s need for water – decoupled from the burden of heavy bureaucracies and legacy systems – can translate into an exciting proving ground for light, green, creative solutions. Indeed, innovations in water and sanitation policy or technology could potentially quench the continent’s thirst at lower capital and operational expenses, through cleaner material flows, delivering larger benefits, for more of the population and natural world, than those entrenched systems already fixed in place elsewhere.

A virtuous spiral to sector sustainability (acknowledgement: World Bank)

Sceptical? Consider how many Africans grew up neither blessed nor cursed by big national fixed line telecommunications or coal power monopolies. Now witness the continent’s rapid and radical adoption of competing mobile carriers. Cellular systems infuse and enhance every aspect of more distributed economies, from pioneering mobile money fintech to farms to solar panel adoption. That off-grid life hints at transformations that could arise through similar integration and systems thinking about water.

Already, web/mobile systems and sharing platforms allow African consumers to become producers/consumers, or ‘pro-sumers’, of distributed transport, housing, or clothing. Why not unleash this in water and sanitation? Incentives can help rethink the need for costly large ‘wastewater’ plants. Instead, the opportunity to invest in small, local, and agile ‘resource recovery units, could repay themselves, or contributors, to reduce and reuse increasingly valuable energy, nutrients, biosolids, and water itself.

Such incentives can scale from the individual to the municipal level. Within a responsive alliance, Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM) offers African leaders the opportunity to escape the old, traditional and increasingly fragile ‘Water Supply City’ to become a more versatile and robust ‘Water Sensitive City’.

A parallel competitive advantage lies in human infrastructure. True, IWA has documented Africa’s glaring gap in skilled labour, in which Mozambique alone must somehow double (11,900) its water professionals. There is a flip side. Unconstrained by hidebound culture, rigid protocols, or entrenched hierarchies, Africa’s young water governance institutions are more fluid, open to learning and experimentation.

Indeed, rather than fear disruptive forces, the African water and sanitation sector can, through IWA, find ways to adapt: distributed systems (using resources closer to source, having adaptive and resilience capacity); designer waters (quality of water tailored to intended use); water factories (producing energy, nutrients and other products); and digital water (proactive infrastructure management and customer-centric approaches). Rather than resist such emerging tools and ideas as threats to senior management, the flexible African utility can embrace them to empower and retain the younger water professionals it is racing to hire.

A rallying point for the African rethink

Such flexibility is vital. Current trends, driven by necessity, suggest that future water systems will shift from being linear (open loop) centralised systems, to closed loop distributed systems that maximise opportunities for resource recovery. Closed loop thinking decouples economic development in Africa from water utilisation, shifting society away from the conventional and dangerous ‘take-make-consume-dispose’ model of growth.

To support this transition, IWA’s 17 ‘Water Wise Principles’, endorsed by Kampala and Dakar, can rally Africa’s relevant stakeholders to collaborate across disciplines. As they test sustainable urban water solutions, local economies in transition find in IWA an open yet ordered forum for diffusion, debate, benchmarking and evidence.

United by our shared vision, working side by side with Africa’s water professionals, IWA will help build institutional bridges across borders and silos, and reveal political opportunities where others can see only crises. In this we are hardly naive or Pollyanna. We are realistic about the depth of the obstacles to be overcome. We just never underestimate the transformative potential of human ingenuity.

For African water professionals, modern urban systems thinking unlocks the productive uses of water. It revalues wastewater from liability to asset. It allows room for new business efficiencies, as strict public standards, codes and outcomes can be achieved by competing private firms. And it optimises the way stakeholders interact with one another. In sum, the IUWM approach provides a better understanding of how water sources, water supply, sanitation, wastewater, storm water and solid waste can enhance one another. And few cities are better positioned to harness this holistic thinking, through the SDGs, than those mushrooming across Africa.

From products to services

African cities know SDG6 involves more than mere quantified access to basic products; it’s about ensuring quality: safer, improved, reliable, durable and affordable services. Furthermore, the achievement of urban water security will underpin many other SDGs, such as renewable energy (SDG7); resilient cities (SDG11); waste recycling and reuse (SDG12); and enriching exhausted soils with anaerobic digestion by-products (SDG15) which then enhance agriculture and food security (SDG2).

African water institutions can leverage IWA’s diverse and substantial resources to achieve the SDG6 cornerstone. At the heart of these resources is the dynamic transfer of experience, technologies, and practical intelligence. That knowledge exchange can take place virtually, in web/mobile online forums. It can come through direct finding and connecting with like-minded experts in the field. It can arise through taking part in regional thematic workshops organised by IWA’s dozens of Specialist Groups. It might be sparked by cross-fertilising conversations at IWA congresses and exhibitions. Or it may be discovered after logging into, accessing and receiving summaries from cutting edge magazines, peer-reviewed journals and sector-leading books in what may be the most diverse and comprehensive online library and bookstore devoted to water and sanitation.

Supporting the shift

Yet for all its global expertise, IWA can only support the strategic African partnership; it can’t direct it. Appropriate, responsive and accountable leadership comes from within the continent. Representatives from the African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) call for systems thinking and service integration in urban water under the SDGs and the Ngor Declaration on Sanitation and Hygiene. They feel the urgency of necessity. In just four years, to meet both commitments, AMCOW has adapted technological solutions, social innovations, and regulatory policy to meet local needs. The outcomes range from state-of-the-art toilets with low water use to regulation with the first global ISO standard for non-sewered sanitation.

Africa’s water sector leaders have also developed two potential game-changing concepts. One is the Pan-African Test-Bed Network, where innovators can pilot and demonstrate the new technology options in all sub-regions of Africa. The other is an African Water and Sanitation Knowledge Hub, which offers promising solution-delivering pathways throughout the continent.

These innovations are rooted in Africa, driven by Africans. Even so, we believe some of the most profound transformations in water management in Africa have yet to be imagined, much less tested and developed. So as much as Africans may benefit from joining IWA, our network can and will benefit even more from the unique insights, technologies, policy directions, scientific perspectives, and institutional abilities around water and sanitation – the ‘always something new’ that keeps coming out of Africa.

The author

Dr Kala Vairavamoorthy is Executive Director of the International Water Association.

For more about IWA and to download the IWA Strategic Plan, see


The power of partnerships

Sylvain Usher, Executive Director, African Water Association

AfWA as a membership organisation brings together more than 170 water and sanitation utilities across Africa, as well as more than 70 international and national equipment suppliers from all the continents. AfWA’s main objective is to create a platform for exchanging experience and supporting capacity building for water and sanitation operators.

With this aim in mind, AfWA runs capacity building programmes supported by funding institutions such as the African Development Bank, the European Union, the United States Agency for International Development, OPEC Fund for International Development, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

We mainly act through peer to peer learning, and we have achieved substantial outreach undertaking and organising Water Operator Partnerships (WOP), Sanitation Operator Partnerships (SOP), and utility Laboratory Operator Partnerships (LOP). More than 80 capacity building partnerships have been arranged by AfWA in the past few years.

Challenges in pursuing this further include the need for more mentor utilities to satisfy demand for partnership requests, and the funding to undertake these partnerships.

Working with IWA as a global organisation offers us the opportunity to widen our scope of experts and certainly to touch more people on the ground. IWA Specialist Groups tackle some of major technical challenges faced by AfWA members, such as non-revenue water and water quality issues. Participation of a greater number of staff from AfWA members would be of high interest.

Partnerships are the only way to improve performance in a sustainable manner at all levels. This means partnerships between operators, as well as partnerships between organisations serving the same goals, such as AfWA and IWA. Working in isolation is definitely not an option.

I believe that AfWA and IWA working in partnership will be a win-win relationship. With our focus on the same issues – water and sanitation – AfWA can take advantage of the strong practitioner network of IWA, and IWA can better connect with the reality of the on the ground issues that the African water and sanitation sector is facing. Together, solutions can be found for the benefit of the growing population of the African continent with its need for safe drinking water and adequate sanitation services.

The utility connection

Silver Mugisha, Managing Director, National Water and Sewerage Corporation, Uganda

African water utilities need to learn from each other, within countries and across the continent. They have been collaborating and sharing experiences through various partnerships and discussions, especially within the framework of the African Water Association. This is important because they share similar challenges, operating contexts, and opportunities for improvement.

The future of African water utilities also depends on how well their leaders and managers challenge the processes currently used, benchmark against well-performing enterprises, and adapt disruptive technologies and progressive operational practices. This means African water utilities need to collaborate with the wider international water world.

Connecting with the IWA network allows water utilities in Africa and all over the world to benefit from IWA’s value proposition – a proposition strengthened by the many opportunities to learn and share experiences provided by its ambitious new Strategic Plan.

Such partnerships will continue to play a crucial role in enhancing and advancing the technological progress and growth in productivity of water utilities. Working in isolation cannot be the option. However, utility leaders and managers will have to adapt an action-oriented mentality rather than an overly ‘give-me’ orientation. This means they will have to design their strategic agendas in a way that builds an increasingly self-reliant basis of operation.

The step-change to a more sustainable world

Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO, Water Research Commission, South Africa

The world is on a rapid pathway to unsustainable development. As far as water is concerned, “water crisis” has, after nine years in the top five risks to the global economy, become an almost permanent feature in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report.

Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, faces extremes of this water challenge, in terms of the achievability of the SDGs, serious capacity constraints, and the almost impossible frequency of extreme weather events predicted to worsen with global climate change. Prospects based on current water behaviours look bleak.

The other side of the African coin is promise. The world needs a step-change in water development, management, and behaviour. This can only happen on the back of innovation. What better laboratory than Africa?

In many ways, the continent is the global greenfields site for ‘new water and sanitation’. We would love to see Africa-centred global partnerships in water sensitive design shape the 50 African megacities that we will have by 2063 – and not relying on retrofits. Africa can be first to scale up waterless and low water use ‘new sanitation’ technology that offers the multiple additional boons of localised waste treatment, energy generation, and other high value beneficiated products.

Research input is crucial to this opportunity. We have the benefit of a small, but highly productive, African research and innovation community of practice, with South Africa being in the top 20 of the ISI field rankings. The Water Research Commission, for example, constantly seeks poly-lateral partnerships with African, developing country and OECD partners in triangulated relationships for global impact.

New sanitation promises not only to expand the frontiers of human dignity through universal access to sanitation, but also promises major global industrialisation projects that could become the epicentre of a new green economy.

The International Water Association, with its influential membership and worldwide presence, can be the ideal bridge to enable this ambitious project – connecting African ambition with global expertise in a partnership that could change the character of this industry and herald the step-change to a more sustainable world.