Mapping Africa’s water poverty


The absence of clean water and basic sanitation are among the leading causes of mortality among those younger than five across the continent. It places a huge burden on Africa’s women who must walk long distances to gather water from streams, ponds and wells.

africa 1050006 1920Children collecting water.
Iamge credit: Pixabay

joint monitoring report by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF shows that, globally, 64% of people have access to decent sanitation services, but this is true for less than a third of sub-Saharan Africa’s population. Research has also showed how unreliable water supply is simultaneously a cause and result of poverty.

South African water researcher Dr Anthony Turton coined the phrase ‘water poverty’ to describe societies that cannot cope with the problem of water scarcity. This prompted the development of the Water Poverty Index by ecological and environmental economist Professor Caroline Sullivan in 2002. The index allows researchers to produce an integrated assessment of water stress and scarcity, linking physical estimates of water availability with socioeconomic variables that reflect poverty.

There’s wide agreement that the index is useful and reliable, but its indicators are not appropriate for all contexts, so Sullivan set out to create a set of indicators that can be applied in the African context. These indicators include a country’s seasonal variability of rainfall; a nation’s water investments and how efficiently it uses water in agriculture and industry. Another indicator is a country’s Human Development Index, which considers factors like life expectancy, education and average income.

This allows Sullivan to map Africa’s water poverty situation, giving a good sense of how different this is across countries on the continent. Her findings offer a transparent analysis for policymakers, governments and organisations that deal with water issues. They can use the information from the index to assess the opportunities and risks involved with interventions. They also have a better understanding of the socio-economic factors that affect different African countries’ water management policies rather than treating the whole continent as a homogeneous mass. What will work in Seychelles, which has a low level of water poverty, will not necessarily be useful in Djibouti, where water poverty levels are high.


Sullivan chose 15 indicators from 22 variables to compute five components for the African Water Poverty Index: resources, access, capacity, use and environment. The results are mapped across several water poverty maps that she developed and show that water poverty follows a complex, diverse spatial pattern. Africa’s most economically developed countries are also its most water-scarce. These are located mainly in northern and southern Africa and include Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and South Africa.

Water-rich but lower income countries are mainly concentrated in the sub-Saharan region – places like Gabon, Central African Republic and Congo. This suggests that as some countries grow and attract more people looking for work, their water resources will be more pressurised. These countries must put long-term, sustainable water management plans in place so they don’t run short of water – a scenario that would greatly hamper further economic development and growth.

The index also suggests what form these plans might take. North African countries, for instance, ought to pay more attention to improving the use of scarce water resources in agriculture and other sectors. Higher water efficiency and consumer conservation programmes are required. In the sub-Saharan region, meanwhile, access to piped water and sanitation facilities remains generally very low.

These countries may be ‘richer’ in water than their northern counterparts, but this reality is not experienced by many residents. Anyone working in the water sector in these countries ought to focus on how to improve access to safe water and effective sanitation.


Sullivan’s hope in creating this Africa-focused index is that policymakers, politicians and development experts will apply the data. Such a multidimensional assessment of water poverty for the continent could make a big difference to management and planning.

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