The Urban Challenge – Beyond Water Supply

A report on the GWP Side Event at World Water Day 2011, Cape Town, South Africa

Urban population has grown more than seven fold in Africa from 44 million in 1965 to 412 million in 2010. The urban water challenge in Africa is exacerbated by the movement of people from rural to urban areas in search of better economic prospects, and the bulk of this movement is into the secondary towns, rather than major cities. The high rate of urbanization puts pressure on existing water and sanitation infrastructure and leads to intensified pollution of water sources and the environment.  Approximately 60% of the urban population of Africa now lives in informal settlements of which the majority is classified as poor. For every 100 people moving into an urban area, 75 go into the informal settlements.

These are some of the facts that came out at the 2011 World Water Day commemoration in Cape Town with the theme Water and Urbanization. The Global Water Partnership (GWP) organised a side session, “Water – the Urban Challenge” with the aim of highlighting critical issues in urban water management and possible responses.

 “To ensure water security in cities, it is important for utilities to manage the resource beyond water supply by looking at where the water is coming from,” said GWP Executive Secretary Dr Ania Grobicki in her opening remarks. “IWRM is an approach that allows cities to manage the resource from source to disposal and address the critical challenges in urban water management. It is important for cities, as a key stakeholder, to participate in resource protection and catchment management issues.”

Dr Grobicki also underlined the importance of harvesting water and recycling the resource in order to multiply the benefits of water use. Research being carried out by the Water Research Commission of South Africa and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, presented at the session by Nicola Rodda, confirmed the need for recycling, noting that poor communities are water stressed. Reusing what is known as ‘grey water’ could contribute to food security at household level.

Africa also faces the challenge of infrastructure development in urban areas and some innovative approaches are being implemented to respond. In Angola and Namibia, two countries with very different levels of development, have now joined forces to ensure that clean water is supplied to towns in both countries on either side of the Kunene River. This cross-border initiative shows the importance of regional cooperation in managing water resources, especially in post-conflict situations.  Phera Ramoeli, the SADC Senior Programme Officer for Water, noted that Angolans and Namibians who live along the Kunene River are one people.

Besides the economic allure of cities, climate change is also behind urban migration. Belynda Petrie explained how rural economies are already impacted by climate change and urbanisation can be seen as an adaptation strategy. In most cases, slums or informal settlements receive the people moving in to cities, adding pressure to already water-stressed urban environments. The impacts of climate change will also be manifested though extreme weather events, which hit informal settlements disproportionately hard.  Inefficient city layouts and weak disaster management make responding more difficult which is why it is important for countries to integrate climate change responses into development planning.  Dr Grobicki noted that it was important to plan to upgrade many informal settlements in-situ, rather than forcing people to move once more – informal settlements need to be part of the solution, rather than being viewed as a problem, since they are such a major part of Africa´s urbanization pattern.

UN-Habitat is supporting growing cities to respond better to climate change challenges and has developed, under the Lake Victoria Water and Sanitation Initiative, a toolkit to assist water utilities in adaptation and response strategies.  This involves looking upstream to the watershed.

Stakeholder involvement in delivering solutions for urban water management is also important. AMCOW is responding by developing a gender strategy.  Naadiya Moosajee of South African Women in Engineering encourages girls and women to train as engineers. She noted that engineering that just looks at supplying water will not solve the problems cities are facing. The next generation of engineers need to deliver solutions that are more appropriate and relevant to social issues. Tom Okurut of the Lake Victoria Basin Authority commented that it is important to look at how engineering solutions and utilities can best serve the urban poor.

The involvement of women and youth in finding sustainable solutions for water, sanitation and urbanization cannot be ignored given that 70% of Africa’s urban population is comprised of youth. Examples given of youth involvement in water security issues include formation of Water Action Groups and young entrepreneurs running water kiosks in informal settlements. Young people are innovative and they are the future of Africa.