NRT students gain insight on water issues in Africa

Ellis Adjei Adams
Ellis Adjei Adams, who works in environmental policy internationally, spoke with NRT students on October 28 about his research on water issues in Africa.

Ellis Adjei Adams, an assistant professor of geography and environmental policy at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, spoke to NRT students on October 28, 2020, about urban water insecurity and governance in Malawi and Ghana and the ways these issues interplay with environmental risks and gender disparities.

“Even by conservative estimates, we think that almost a billion people are without access to safe drinking water globally, but regardless of how you look at it, Africa runs really high and still is at the top of the list for the region that struggles the most,” Adams said. “Unfortunately, it’s also the region with quite an abundant set of water resources.”

Malawi has one of the world’s largest lakes, and Adams relayed how treatment plants in Malawi and Ghana pipe water from freshwater sources like it and rivers and streams far from cities. These pipes do not run to the fringes of growing cities, so many residents need to walk daily to an access point or to a river or stream, which may be unsafe for drinking.

“Unlike you that would turn on your tap and get water, somebody needs to walk to the source, carry it in a bucket, travel a certain number of miles and then, even at home, have to decide which storage container is clean enough to store the water,” Adams said.

Africans at a river
With increasing urbanization of African cities, many people living at the outskirts do not have ready access to safe drinking water and draw their water from the closest streams or rivers.

This work typically falls on women, and they may suffer spinal injuries and other problems from hauling the heavy containers of water several miles each day, Adams said.

“The burden of water collection is rarely captured by global water monitoring groups,” he said, noting that even when women arrive at an access point, they may need to wait an hour if water pressure is low and the source is flowing slowly. “On average, a woman spends about three hours every day trying to get water.”

woman hauling water and baby
Adams pointed out the health risks of regularly hauling heavy loads, as this woman is doing with about 40 pounds on her head and a baby on her back.

African women’s walk and wait may grow longer as the region’s population continues to escalate, drawing more people from rural areas to its cities. Adams said almost 40 percent of Africans live in urban areas, and people continue to move to “informal settlements,” or slums, on the fringes of cities, where few water pipes reach.

“The government pretty much ignores people living in slums because they don’t want to tell people that they can live there,” he said.

In these neighborhoods, difficult issues about housing, energy, food, waste management and sanitation intersect with the water issues.

“It isn’t just water but a lot of other vulnerabilities that people have to experience from day to day,” Adams said.

In Ghana, Adams’ native country, some of the major water treatment plants were built during colonial times and have not seen improvements since then. Rainfall and groundwater may seep into the old pipes and contaminate the water even after it has been treated.

“You could very well find E. coli at the distribution point,” Adams said.

Contaminants can also enter the water by being handled with unclean hands, transported long distances and stored in contaminated containers, he said. Added to that, Adams said some “Mafia types” take dirty water, add chlorine and go into these communities and sell it. Faced with the choice of paying for water at an access point and having a long wait, paying a street vendor for water or walking to a river to draw untreated water, some people will choose the river water.

“It’s a very tough choice,” Adams said. “The water that you think is fairly safe is the water that will take you three hours to get.”

He and other researchers have been working in these communities on the fringes of African cities to see if the residents can mobilize to solve the problems.

“What I do is ask: Could communities do something about it and not just wait on the government? Can community water governance help improve the situation?” he said.

He has been going to Malawi since 2012, conducting household surveys, interviews and focus group discussions to see if communities can improve conditions by partnering with a water provider rather than waiting on the government.

A difficulty he points to in getting communities to mobilize is distrust among the residents, who come from different ethnicities and tribes.

“A lot of it has to do with the differences,” Adams said, repeating phrases he commonly hears in the communities. “’I come from a different tribe than you; I’m not willing to work together with you.’ So, I talk about that as one of the limitations of community mobilization in urban areas, just because there is very limited cohesion. It undermines the tendency for people to come together.”

Added to that is a mistrust of what Adams referred to as “elites.” He said people in the communities will say something like, “Well, if we organize, it’s only the high school teachers and the chief imam and the village chief, the people who already have power, that then become members of this association and then they will sometime share in the profits.”

Community residents mistrust what will happen with the money they pay for water, he said.

“People do not trust that kind of system, and where they do not, they do not want to mobilize,” he said. “They do not want to give more power to the people that already have the power to make decisions.”

And women, who are arguably the most affected by these water issues, still lack leadership in these new governance systems, Adams said, pointing out that a board may have 30 men but only one woman. Instead, women are further down the hierarchy, selling the water.

“The men think that is the way that they are involving the women, even though at that level, you don’t really get to decide anything,” he said.

water tank in Africa
In Accra, Ghana, the infrastructure is old and water cannot be pumped into communities on the outskirts, so people invest in huge water storage containers like the one pictured. Some people sell the water they collect. “People spend an average of 22 percent of their income on water,” Adams said.

All of these factors contribute toward community apathy toward taking part in governance, Adams said. He has worked in 40 of these fringe communities, but only 9 have stepped up to try to resolve their issues through community governance.

“It tells you that for other communities, they’re still not interested at all in these kinds of systems because they don’t think it will make any difference,” he said.

Still, when he started his dissertation, only 6 communities had mobilized, and he has seen improvements in these communities.

People in them have partnered with water providers to build more access points to water and to make pricing systems more transparent and water cheaper. Some people have seen a decrease in the wait and walk to water. Some communities have made a profit selling water to their members and have been able to invest that in other projects.

“Water has become a vehicle to develop communities,” Adams said.

Yet challenges remain. Disruptions to the water supply continue.

“What you have done is to put in more water pipes without improving the infrastructure that actually pumps the water to the pipes, and so, you have people waiting even longer now to get their water despite the fact that the water is relatively cheaper,” Adams said.

People remain reluctant to get involved, and many communities have not organized.

Adams does not allow their lack of interest to deter him.

“I just argue that we shouldn’t use that as a yardstick,” he said. “We should still look at what a system is doing rather than how much interest people have in being part of it.”

He holds out hope for these Africans through community governance.

“I think that as they see improvement, it sort of entices other communities to also mobilize, and maybe over time, we will see more people,” Adams said.

His presentation contributed to the global perspective NRT students hold on water issues.

“I was especially interested to learn about the co-production of water services in sub-Saharan Africa and the benefits and challenges of co-production in water governance,” Kate Bird, master’s student in the School of Natural Resources, said. “I don't have a background in water management, but I am always eager to learn about different strategies to address challenges in natural resource management and governance.”

— Ronica Stromberg, National Research Traineeship Program Coordinator

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