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As the devastation of COVID-19 gripped the world 2 years ago, the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities has never been more important. In Africa, only one in four people have access to safe drinking water in their homes, which has been further compounded by the pandemic, exacerbating the water crisis across the continent. As it stands, more than half of the population still lacks access to improved sanitation facilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted economic activities across the continent as lockdowns brought with them economic challenges, a surge in poverty and increased socio-economic differences within societies. The Omicron variant which was first detected in South Africa greatly destabilised the local currency causing a trade imbalance that the country is still recovering from. From an infrastructure perspective, there is a growing need for more strategic support and multi-level structural adjustments that need addressing for the growth of the continent to get back on track.
Investing considerably in the development of water infrastructure is one of the many levers that can be activated in catalysing Africa’s development. According to the World Health Organization, investing a dollar in water and sanitation infrastructure yields a return of $3 to $34, while also providing a clear pathway out of poverty.
With Africa’s population expected to increase considerably more than other continents, achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals for water, sanitation, and hygiene would require urgent and consistent investment in sustainable water infrastructure. Coupled with adequate capacity for operations and maintenance of infrastructure, efficient management of available water resources, as well as competent regulatory and policy frameworks, achieving this goal becomes more realistic. This will ensure that the estimated 5% GDP loss associated with lack of access to safe water and sanitation in Africa is reversed.
The African market has recently opened up to more foreign infrastructure investments, yet investment around water access and supply does not seem to be getting the attention it deserves. Instead, investments have been directed to other infrastructural needs, mainly in the rail, road and built environment sectors. While the importance of these infrastructural needs cannot be underestimated, there are many lessons that we have learnt from their administration that need to be considered when implementing water infrastructure. Every African government that is welcoming investments for water infrastructure must have proficient local executors with adequate technical expertise and a high level of transparency to ensure effective project implementation. Capacity in the mentioned fields will ensure that development agencies and governments are able to attract the right investors without conceding too much to the investors. It will also ensure local industry participation in the processes.
Capacity needs are wide-ranging and touch on issues such as the ability to effectively outline project financial structuring and management, risk analysis, environmental impact assessment etc. Because there is less focus on the need for major water infrastructure financing, capacity building consequently requires significant investment. Capacity building is a fundamental aspect of development that would help achieve desired targets and improve outcomes while not taking funds away from tangible results.
According to a report by the Africa-EU Water Partnership Project, various funders in the water and sanitation sector believe capacity building is an important area to invest in due to the following reasons.
- UN SDG 6 is not achievable with the current human capital resources in Africa – the human capacity gap is too wide.
- Capacity building improves the quality of implementation.
- Capacity building improves the sustainability of any project intervention.
Recognizing the capacity gap, especially for local water infrastructure facility providers, can help create necessary interventions that would eventually enable such institutions to attract funding that can help scale their projects. There are many challenges related to accessing safe water for everyone, therefore we need to ensure that capacity to successfully build, maintain, and operate water infrastructure is not one of them.