Millions of Africans lack access to clean water. This makes coronavirus a bigger threat.

22 Mar 2020

Originally posted on The Monkey Cage blog.

Brian Howard is publications manager for Afrobarometer.

Kangwook Han is a research assistant for Afrobarometer and a PhD candidate at Michigan State University.

The best protection against coronavirus and other infectious diseases is frequent handwashing, the experts say. Simple enough — if you have water.

But as we observe World Water Day on March 22 during a coronavirus pandemic, millions of Africans still lack access to running water. And things don’t seem to be getting better.

Based on more than 45,800 face-to-face interviews in 34 African countries between late 2016 and late 2018, Afrobarometer found that a majority of Africans see their governments as failing them when it comes to the provision of clean water and sanitation services.

About half (49 percent) of respondents said they went without enough clean water for home use at least once during the previous year. In some countries, this form of “lived poverty” affected more than three-fourths of the population, as shown in Fig. 1. Repeated shortages of clean water (at least “several times”) decreased slightly between survey rounds in 2011/2013 (39 percent) and 2014/2015 (35 percent) but then increased again to 38 percent, wiping out the earlier gains.

Fig. 1: Who’s without enough clean water in Africa?

Respondents were asked: Over the past year, how often, if ever, have you or anyone in your family gone without enough clean water for home use? Source: Afrobarometer, based on in-person surveys in 34 African countries, 2016-2018.

Poor infrastructure limits access to water

If the likelihood that people will wash their hands depends on how readily water is available, that’s a problem for disease prevention in Africa. More than half (52 percent) of Africans have to go outside their compound to get water. This is true for majorities in 20 of the 34 surveyed countries, including for more than 8 out of 10 citizens in Uganda (87 percent), Niger (84 percent), Malawi (82 percent), and Tanzania (81 percent) — see Fig. 2.

Fig. 2: Where is your main source of water for household use?

Respondents were asked: Please tell me whether each of the following are available inside your house, inside your compound, or outside your compound: Your main source of water for household use? Source: Afrobarometer, based on in-person surveys in 34 African countries, 2016-2018.

Inadequate infrastructure is a problem across the continent: Only a slim majority (54 percent) of Africans live in areas served by a piped-water system. In 5 of the 34 surveyed countries, water infrastructure is only accessible to one-quarter or less of the population: Uganda (25 percent), Malawi (25 percent), Guinea (24 percent), Zambia (23 percent) and Liberia (8 percent).

The situation is even more dire when it comes to sanitation: Only 26 percent of Africans live in zones with sewage systems, and about 3 in 10 have to go outside their compound to use a toilet or latrine (22 percent) or have no access to a facility at all (7 percent).

As might be expected, rural residents and poor people are far less likely than their urban and better-off counterparts to have access to water and sanitation infrastructure. For example, while 80 percent of city residents live within reach of a piped water system, only 34 percent of rural residents do. For sewerage, the gap is 50 percent vs. 8 percent. Similarly, almost half (46 percent) of well-off Africans live in areas served by sewage systems, but the same is true of just 16 percent of the poorest.

Water and sanitation are among citizens’ top priorities

Even without the added threat of coronavirus, ordinary Africans were well aware of the urgency of government action on water and sanitation. When Afrobarometer asked survey participants what they consider the most important problems their government should address, only unemployment and health outranked water/sanitation as a priority. It’s the top priority in Guinea, the second-highest priority in Tanzania and Benin, and the third-highest in eight other countries.

Considering these concerns, it’s hardly surprising that a majority (54 percent) of Africans say their governments are doing a poor job of providing water and sanitation services for their citizens. The worst scores come from Gabon and Guinea (84 percent and 82 percent disapproval, respectively) — the countries where people are most likely to suffer water shortages, as we saw in Fig. 1. But disapproval of the government’s performance is the majority view in 20 of the 34 countries.

The costs of this failure can be measured in any number of ways and sectors, including an estimated 829,000 deaths each year globally from diarrhea as a result of unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hand hygiene, according to the World Health Organization. The coronavirus outbreak, should it hit Africa hard, would be one more reminder of these costs.