How Rapid Urbanization in Africa Compounds Water Challenges

Africa’s population is growing faster than any other continent’s and its urban population is expected to more than double by 2050. This urban rapid growth, which is mostly sprawling “horizontal” growth, as the World Resources Report: Towards a More Equal City shows, is combining with climate change and increases in water demand to paint a dire picture of the continent’s water security. 

Every region of Africa has basins facing medium to extremely high water risk, according to data compiled by WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas. With worsening effects of climate change, the continent is likely to experience even greater water stress due to increased precipitation in wet months and decreased precipitation in dry months. 

Flooding and droughts have already taken a significant human and economic toll. In 2018, a severe drought in sub-Saharan Africa placed 30 million people at risk of significant water stress and food shortages. In 2019, in the port city of Beira, Mozambique, Cyclone Idai caused over $300 million in economic losses (2.3% of the country’s GDP growth in 2019) and destroyed about 70% of the city’s buildings. Additionally, sea level rise and other climate-induced water impacts may worsen water quality and contamination risks, such as increased risk of cholera and other outbreaks. 

Aqueduct provides key data on water risk factors, including physical risks, like water stress and groundwater table decline, as well as qualitative and regulatory risks, like levels of unimproved drinking water. The tool also allows mapping of future risks out to 2040 under various scenarios (i.e., optimistic vs. business as usual), units of measurement (i.e., percent change from baseline) and indicators (i.e., water supply). 

WRI’s most recent report on urban water resilience, Water Resilience in a Changing Urban Context, recommends key actions to take to improve urban water resilience for specific actors, including city government, water and sanitation utilities, national government, civil society, private sector and the international community and financiers. The actions for all actors cut across four priority pathways:

  1. Plan for water: Mainstream risk-informed land management and water-sensitive urban development 
  2. Prioritize the most vulnerable: Increase equitable access to safe water and sanitation 
  3. Create change at scale: Develop innovative institutions and pursue partnerships for water resilience 
  4. Get finance right: Increase and align water-resilient investments across sectors

The physical characteristic of growth in African cities is another compounding factor. As the map shows using data from the Towards a More Equal City series, most cities in sub-Saharan Africa are overwhelming growing out rather than up. Such rapid sprawl increases the costs of service provision for municipalities, deepens spatial inequities for residents, and imposes heavy economic and environmental burdens on cities. 

Building urban water resilience in Africa, like through the African Cities Water Adaptation Fund and Platform and similar initiatives, will be essential to ensuring a more sustainable and equitable future for all but is only possible through effective collaboration across stakeholder groups and sectors to address the compounding factors currently producing risk. 

Sophia Vitello is a former Communications and Engagement Assistant with WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Schuyler Null is Communications Manager for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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