UN: Water and sanitation, a crucial issue for the African continent

During the UN General Assembly in New York, Antonio Guterres called for "helping to save the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fight for a better future that every individual deserves". Among these 17 SDGs, the 6th aims to ensure access to water and sanitation for all and ensure sustainable management of water resources, a crucial point for the African continent.

The SDG Pavilion in the gardens of the UN headquarters in New York. © Anne Bernas/RFI

By: Anne Bernas Follow


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From our special envoy in New York,

Water is at the heart of sustainable development and is essential for socio-economic development. It is also at the heart of climate change adaptation. By 2023, more than half of the world's population, or 4.2 billion people, lack safely managed sanitation services. Nearly 300,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from diseases caused by unsafe water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene practices.

On the African continent, three categories stand out. Countries that suffer from droughts, those in the Sahel where water is not present enough to supply the entire population. Then come the countries that are very rich in water, which are mainly in Central Africa. There, water is abundant but there are many systemic problems that prevent the supply of water to all populations. The last category of countries includes states where scarcity and abundance coexist, but with a lack of supply. "What we see on almost the entire African continent is that there is almost no country that has universal access to safe drinking water," says Balwant Godara, policy advisor at the global partnership of Sanitation and Water for All (SWA).

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This is the case in Côte d'Ivoire, a country where water is abundant in some areas but where inequalities of access are felt. "We are capitalizing so that as many citizens as possible have access to water, and we are doing everything we can to achieve this," explains Hélène Bragori, director of rural sanitation at the Ivorian Ministry of Hydraulics, Sanitation and Salubrity. Currently, 72% of the population of Côte d'Ivoire has access to water (more than 87% in urban areas and around 57% in rural areas), which makes this country an example in this area.

Hélène Bragori, Director of Rural Sanitation at the Ivorian Ministry of Hydraulics, Sanitation and Sanitation, in front of SDG-6 at the UN. © Anne Bernas/RFI

To achieve this, Abidjan has set up many programs, the country works with UNICEF, USAID (US Agency for International Development), the African Development Bank, the World Bank, etc. "All this is motivated by the fact that the government has become aware of the importance of this issue and has decided to take charge of the problem of water and sanitation," insists Hélène Bragori. We also train local actors, such as masons, so that they can build toilets to standards. In 2018, more than 6,000 public primary schools in rural areas did not have toilets. Today, sanitary facilities have been set up in more than 1,000 of them, and efforts are continuing.

Will it be possible to ensure universal access to drinking water in the Sahel and West Africa?

Because who says water also says sanitation. However, this element is still not sufficiently taken into account. There are two reasons why this SDG by 2030 is difficult: many countries focus on drinking water but not enough on sanitation. Its crucial importance has not been grasped. The second reason is logistical: in the private sector, water and sanitation are not or little considered because they are not profitable enough. Then development aid is also declining. "The financial issue, which is crucial, will be the big obstacle to achieving this SDG," adds SWA's political advisor. But it is achievable in many West African countries where progress is continuing. "We believe that SDG-6 is at the centre of all the other SDGs. We cannot fight poverty when we do not have access to drinking water, we cannot talk about health without sanitation. SDG-6 is central and it is it that will make it possible to achieve the other Development Goals, "insists for her part the Director of Rural Sanitation at the Ministry of Hydraulics, Sanitation and Sanitation of Côte d'Ivoire.

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An element of empowerment for women

Water and sanitation are also a matter of rights. Clean and private sanitation facilities are needed, especially for women and girls to manage motherhood and menstruation with dignity and safety. Sanitation is therefore also a matter of human dignity.


The issue of drinking water always brings me back to a gender problem, explains Hélène Bragori with emotion. Water stress and hardship fall on women, especially girls. When the water problem is solved, girls will be able to go to school. The consequences on society are therefore enormous, and not only health. Imagine the dangers a woman faces when she has to go into the bush in the middle of the night to satisfy her needs...


Is the issue of water sufficiently considered at the global level?

Sanitation is therefore a central element of the SDGs. Its impact is also felt on climate change, for example flooding in urban areas would be less if sanitation services were adequate. The argument is therefore multiple because it is economic, climatic, health, and element of dignity.

In half a century, only two conferences on water have been held at the UN level. The second took place last March in New York. It concluded with the adoption of a Programme of Action containing more than 700 commitments. "The issue of water is not like that of health, it is not 'thematic' but absolutely cross-cutting," notes Balwant Godara. It is a question of natural resources, social services, public infrastructure. All development entities could thus have a link with water, directly or indirectly, hence the immense conceptual and methodological complexity.


The issue of water is also crucial in conflicts on the African continent, such as those between farmers and pastoralists who are, for example, partly related to water resources.


We are developing countries, we expect a lot on all these issues, concludes the Ivorian official. Our people expect a lot. We need finance in the face of all this climate change. We must move towards sustainability. And we are optimistic. We are confident. A note of hope despite an observation that remains alarming: the Sustainable Development Goals adopted eight years ago by states around the world are not on track and need a global rescue plan, pleaded Monday the Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres. On 18 September, leaders at the UN adopted a Political Declaration underlining their collective commitment to building a sustainable, inclusive and prosperous world by 2030. The intentions are thus clearly there. It remains to apply them.

During the UN General Assembly in New York, Antonio Guterres called for "helping to save the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fight for a better future that every individual deserves". © Anne Bernas/RFI

* SWA, which stands for Sanitation and Water for All, is a global partnership associated with the United Nations, with 350 voluntary partner entities, civil society, donors and development banks, private actors and 85 national governments.

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