Article: Urbanization & Access to Water on the Continent of Africa

[Crosslinked at Future Challenges Organization’s blog]

A woman jumps across water beside a railway track in Kenya's Kibera slum during a heavy downpour (BBC)
{Macrotrends: Migration + Natural Resources + New Governance}

While the rural imagery is generally associated with the continent of Africa, it now has more urban dwellers than North America. As of 2010, Africa‘s 412 million city dwellers far exceed North America‘s 286 million.

The continent of Africa has the highest rates of urbanization and the lowest rates of urban economic growth on average.  It is estimated that by 2025, more than half of Africa‘s population will live and work in urban centers.  However, increasingly, proverty has an urban face.  As rural-urban migration increases, access to water resources – key to food production and sanitation – does not necessarily increase proportionately.  Additionally, measures of poverty do not include access to water or sanitation. [Cheru, Fantu (2005),Globalization and Uneven Urbanization in Africa: The Limits to Effective Urban Governance in the Provision of Basic Services, American University]

The World Bank estimates that some 300 million urban Africans will be without sanitation by 2020 if Africa‘s urban populations continue to grow at their current rate. The World Bank also estimates that about 225 million African city-dwellers will lack access to potable water sources.  On a global scale, 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. The problem is that urbanization and urban population growth exceeds the growth of water infrastructure.

Slums are urban settlements that lack water infrastructure and sanitation. Slums are created through a combination of rapid urbanization, population growth and poor urban governance.  The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Studies (IFRCRC) World Disasters Report 2010 suggests that investment in infrastructure would curb slum-dwellers‘ susceptibility to natural disasters.

The Kibera slum in Niarobi, Kenya is the second largest slum on the continent of Africa.  According to the 2009 Kenyan census, the Kibera slum has a population of 170,070, much less than the oft-cited half million or million.  The ground of Kibera is almost completely composed of refuse, making it a poor foundation for building projects.  Also, the topography of the hilly area makes it a less-than-ideal place to build homes.  As the area is flood-prone, most homes built in the area are not equipped for longevity. With a population density of over 30 times more than New York City, Kibera has 3000 people per hectare (10,000 meters squared). This constrains large-scale construction in the area rather severely, as building materials would have to be carried piece by piece, rather than trucked in. Moreover, the fact remains that Kibera is an area severely underserved by the Kenyan government; this is in spite of the Kenyan government‘s plan to rehouse residents of Kibera in 300 apartments. This plan is being challenged by landlords who claim ownership over the land and oppose the Kenyan government‘s $1.2 Billion (USD) plan to construct communities with schools, parks, markets and playgrounds.

„Yet by all definitions, Kibera might only be a slum for less than 200,000 tenants; but to the landlords it remains the most profitable property business in town. According to a UN report, over 90 per cent of Kibera residents pay an estimated Sh4.5 billion every year to the real owners of Kibera. This makes the Kibera a sociological paradox: a slum to the poor, a gold mine to the rich.“ [Daily Nation: Myth shattered: Kibera numbers fail to add up, 3 September 2010]

Urbanization on the continent of Africa poses unique challenges in terms of governance and access to natural resources. It will be necessary to incentivize private and public investment into public infrastructure, while adapting social services to the needs of urban dwellers.


  1. Water and sanitation are big issues, and they are particularly a women’s issue. Here’s a link to another blog about the problems with water from charities.
    Groundwater Philanthropy Part 3: When Philanthropy Fails

    I wish it was a link to solutions instead of problems. Seeing what isn’t working is the first step.

    I still remember going to a report about the International Decade of Women where Maureen Reagan told us about how the women from developing countries kept wanting to talk about water. Finally the women from the richer countries realized that they needed to LISTEN to this world-wide problem.

    Civil Engineers design water and sanitation systems right after the city wall and the roads. That’s what it takes to have a civilization. (Which I just realized is probably a synonym for “urbanization.”)

    1. Thank you for the excellent link! It’s right along the lines of what I’ve been researching! I’ve been writing about how inequality disproportionately affects women and children in the “developing” world…

      This has me thinking seriously about an MPP w/ a regional focus…

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