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Copenhagen Consensus Center

Best buys for Africa: Scaling up improved access to clean water in Africa

Fast-track Analysis

In September 2015, heads of state from all around the world adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an ambitious plan of action for “people, planet and prosperity”, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. Drinking-water, sanitation and hygiene are covered in SDG6 targets 6.1 and 6.2, as well as in other SDGs covering disaster risk reduction, education, health, nutrition, poverty and gender. Recognizing the basis of drinking-water for human survival as well as all its many health and socio-economic benefits (Hutton, 2012), target 6.1 for drinking-water states “By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”.

In transitioning from the Millennium Development Goals to the SDGs, different rungs on the water service ladder should be noted. First, the new term ‘basic’ drinking-water refers to an improved water source (as per MDG water indicator), provided collection time is not more than 30 minutes for a round trip, including queuing. Hence, especially in Africa where 17% of rural households source their water from greater than 30 minutes roundtrip (a much higher proportion than other regions), the achievement of the ‘basic’ water service level already represents a challenge for the African continent. Note also that the ‘basic’ water service level is monitored as part of the poverty SDG, indicator 1.4.1, as well as the target service level for schools (indicator 4.a.1) and healthcare facilities. Second, the indicator for Target 6.1 is the “Proportion of population using safely managed drinking water services”. ‘Safely managed drinking water’ is defined as “From an improved water source that is located on premises, available when needed and free from faecal and priority chemical contamination”. Hence, this service level for water is significantly higher than the ‘basic’ water service level, and an even greater challenge for the African continent. 

The latest report of the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (2019) shows Africa to be trailing other regions in terms of access to safely managed water supply (27%) and basic water (61%). The report also notes the very significant inequalities, with rural areas (45%) having roughly half the coverage of urban areas (84%) for basic water supply, and other sub-national inequalities by region or by province. Recent JMP reports for schools (2018) and healthcare facilities (2019) show that major challenges remain in institutional access to water in sub-Saharan Africa, with only 51% of healthcare facilities with at least basic water and 47% of schools without basic water access.
The aim of this paper is to present updated cost-benefit numbers for achieving universal access drinking-water supply to African households from 2018 to 2030, to enable comparison of drinking-water with other development interventions included in the Copenhagen Consensus Center’s Africa initiative. Access is defined as what water source is actually used by households. The analysis focuses on basic drinking-water as defined by WHO/UNICEF in the Joint Monitoring Programme’s latest biennial report (WHO/UNICEF 2019). This is partly due to the lack of coverage data on the ‘safely managed’ service level, but also, from an equity perspective, the presentation of cost and cost-benefit results for ‘basic’ access brings greater attention to those being left behind and focuses policy makers’ and financiers’ attention on achieving basic access for all.