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Time for Africa to reform wastewater regulations

Clever Mafuta

Story by GRID-Arendal September 13th, 2017

The 2017 Stockholm World Water Week has come and gone. With Water and waste: reduce and reuse as its theme, this year’s global water showcase was attended by around 3,000 people, including water experts and government officials.

As the second driest continent in the world, after Australia, the 2017 World Water Week theme could not be more appropriate for Africa.

Being a water scarce continent, Africa must turn to wastewater as a resource for agriculture, energy generation, groundwater recharge and other uses. Regulatory reforms are needed to ensure the switch in the generally held view that wastewater is a waste, and a health and environmental hazard.

With the fastest population growth rate, Africa accounts for 15 per cent of the world population, and yet the region has only 9 per cent of the global renewable water resources.

The village Dagoretti, where industrial wastewater is a challenge. Photo: Rob Barnes/ GRID-Arendal

An estimated 695 million Africans lack basic sanitation services, and together with other wastewater streams such as industry, agriculture and storm-water, the amount of wastewater produced in the region can only be expected to increase.

Ninety per cent of wastewater in developing countries is discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans without treatment. In Africa, domestic sources such as sanitation are a major cause of water pollution.

According to Doulaye Kone of the Melinda Gates Foundation, Africa can accelerate the provision of sanitation infrastructure in the same way it has embraced the mobile phone technology. “… we need a non-sewage technology that does not pollute the environment. We should turn the waste into a commodity which can benefit the user or the service provider”, noted Kone.

Africa’s old wastewater regulations are not supported by locally devolved power for enforcement. The authority to enforce regulations remains concentrated at the national level, and yet much of the wastewater and sanitation issues are found at the local level such as in towns and cities, which need to be governed at the local level.

Some of the technologies for wastewater treatment are old and rely on electricity. This is not helped by the frequent power outages that many countries in Africa experience. The situation is further compounded by the people being averse to regulations.

River downtown Nairobi. Photo: Rob Barnes/ GRID-Arendal

In order to transform the regulatory landscape for wastewater, there is need for a change in mindset. Proper wastewater management has many non-monetary benefits for society and the environment. Private and public-sector investment in wastewater management remains a priority for Africa, not only for the social and environmental benefits, but also for the opportunities for technological innovation and infrastructure development.

Voluntary regulations such as South Africa’s Green Drop Certification have shown to attract public acceptance, and to instill a sense of pride to local authorities.

With the growing demand for wastewater management and sanitation provision, Africa is ready to embrace new technologies. According to Kone several non-sewage technologies are being tested across Africa. “The idea is to mature the technology so that it can attract commercial partners who can take those technologies and turn them into products”, says Kone.

At the centre of Africa’s wastewater management regulatory reforms are the Sustainable Development Goals. Africa needs to align its planning and regulations with the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets. Target 6.3 of the Sustainable Development Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation) aims to, “By 2030 improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.”

This series of news articles is part of the Wastewater Management and Sanitation Provision in Africa Project, a partnership between the African Development Bank (AfDB), UN Environment and GRID-Arendal. The project is supported by the AfDB through its Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Initiative (funded by the Governments of Burkina Faso, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands), and the Multi-Donor Water Partnership Programme (funded by the Governments of Canada and Denmark). The project is also funded by the Government of Norway and UN Environment, and technically supported by GRID-Arendal.

Footnote: Header photo: Wastewater in Kibera (Kenya). Photo: Rob Barnes/GRID-Arendal