The month of March has arrived bearing two special days – International Women’s Day on the 8th and World Water Day on the 22nd.   Water. Climate. Food. Health. Women. Life. Death.  These are keywords that spring to mind when I think about water, which is embedded in all forms of development ranging from food security, health promotion, poverty reduction and sustainable economic growth in agriculture, manufacturing and energy generation.  But who has access to this water? Especially in the age of Climate Change? I grew up with the privilege of water flowing freely from indoor taps, and whose quality was safe for us to drink, run off to drum up more thirst, and get muddier. Adequate water-supply infrastructure remains a dream for the bulk of Africa’s population.

Today, most urban residents in Kenya supply their own water.  Boreholes are dug for several property developments. Blue trucks ferrying 5,000 liters traverse our towns filling up huge tanks.

The coastal town of Mombasa is littered with hand-carts filled with the ubiquitous black or yellow jerry cans ready for sale anywhere, anytime, right by the mighty Indian Ocean.  The source of the water in the trucks and carts is never verifiable.  Whether it has been tested is irrelevant.  And no one dares to ask if it is indeed safe for consumption.

The irony of water as a rare commodity on a continent with large surface water sources and substantial aquifers is nothing short of calamitous. Worse, the poverty tax associated with water scarcity is becoming increasingly evident.  While suburban residents may pay approximately US$10-15 per month for municipal water, the cost of one 5,000 liter water truck is in excess of US$30 with more than two needed per month in a middle-income household of four. The burden is heavier for residents in informal settlements – averaging US$0.40 – US$0.60 per day for a household with a daily wage of US$6 on a good day.  Spending almost 10% of your income on the water – a constitutional right – is tragic.

Spring Water. Purified Water. Mineral Water. Sparkling Water. As people start to question the quality of water – from boreholes, the municipality or trucks – one thing that has substantially changed over the last few years is the growth of the bottled water market, expected to reach a whopping US$215 Billion by 2025. Recent research has however established that some of the blends of bottled water are more contaminated than normal tap water. Most, unfortunately, the majority of bottled water sales now happen in developing economies where water infrastructure is desperately lacking. In Lagos, one of Africa’s most populous cities, the bottled water market is said to have peaked at US$6 Bn in 2019.

It has been argued that bottled water companies are wasting resources and exacerbating climate change as more than 6 liters of water are required to produce and cool 1.5 liters of bottled water. Environment and climate action champions also highlight that most plastic water bottles are made from toxic compounds obtained from fossil fuels and will take over 450 years to break down into plastic particles. Sadly, a majority of these find their way into our oceans, poisoning the ocean and killing marine wildlife. It has also been argued that the energy required in capturing, conveying and treating water in bottling plants is not justifiable.  Additional energy consumption occurs in producing, cleaning, filling, sealing, labeling and refrigerating bottles.

Lastly, energy is required to transport the bottles across the value chain to retailers and consumers. Australia’s statistics show that the total energy required in the production of bottled water is 5.6-10.2 MJ per liter compared to 0.005 MJ per liter in the treatment and distribution of tap water.

UNICEF estimates that Africa’s population will cross the 2.5 billion by 2050 and urban food markets are set to increase fourfold to exceed US$400 million by 2030.  These mouths will need to be fed and a key concern is that the continued extraction of water from underground aquifers will result in a lower water table, which could have adverse social and environmental ramifications.  The need for transboundary water resource projects has become increasingly evident in terms of water security for socio-economic development. For example, the construction of the Koukoutamba multi-purpose dam between Mali and Senegal is expected to stabilize the flow of the Senegal River to allow irrigated agriculture, river traffic and an increase in hydroelectric power. With over 60% of Africa’s population dependent on the agricultural value chain, the impact of climate change on our water resources cannot be underscored. And who is plowing this parched land?  Africa’s Women.

It is important to note, however, large multi-purpose dams that promise water for irrigation, commercial and domestic use cannot be planned without the engagement of the communities most impacted by these projects. It is estimated that Africa’s women waste 40 billion hours annually fetching water – equivalent to a year’s labor for the entire workforce in France. Depending on the season, women travel two or three times daily, collecting water. At 50-77 minutes per trip, this is 45 days per annum per household and an incredible waste of time.   As the predominant caretakers of domestic water, it is imperative that women engage in the decision-making process for water and sanitation infrastructure and services – they need to have their say about location, design, and management of water points.

Policymakers should implement concrete actions in knowledge building, career development, and dialogue so we have more women participating across the entire water and sanitation value chain – in water committees, water use associations, boardrooms, government planning departments and wearing hard hats and overalls on project sites working along with their male counterparts for equal pay. In an effort to fill the gender various gaps in society, Aspiration 6 in Agenda 2063 promotes inclusivity and encourages “all citizens to be actively involved in decision making in all aspects and where no child, woman or man is left behind or excluded, on the basis of gender, political affiliation, religion, ethnic affiliation, locality, age or other factors.”

The late UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan could not have pronounced it better in 2003 when he said that:

“…there is no effective development strategy in which women do not play a central role.  When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier and better fed; their income, savings, and reinvestment go up.  And what is true of families is also true of communities and, in the long run, of whole countries”.

Author: Mary Chege, member of the ANWIn

This powerful statement still rings true today and the establishment of the African Network for Women in Infrastructure (ANWIn) under the leadership of H.E. Commissioner Amani Abou-Zeid, could not be timelier.  Launched in November 2019, the African Union Commission and PIDA partners expressed their commitment to support gender-sensitive infrastructure planning and it is envisaged that this Network will serve as a regional and global expert platform to promote dialogue, consultation and agenda-setting for women in infrastructure development in Africa. As we conclude the first Priority Action Plan of the PIDA (2012-2020) and move towards the project selection process of PIDA in Priority Action Plan2 (2020-2030), the criteria has been set to prioritize gender-responsive infrastructure. For when Women are fully involved, the benefits are seen immediately.

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