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Addressing gender issues in urban water and sanitation


The African subcontinent has experienced rapid economic growth since 2000. African Development Bank (AfDB) Group demographic projections indicate that Africa’s population will increase from 1 billion in 2010 to 1.6 billion in 2030. The continent’s urban population is expected to increase from 40% of the total population to over 50%, increasing the already high unmet demand for water. The majority of both increases will occur in the poorest, most crowded areas.

The sixth United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG6) aims to ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’. Africa faces a huge task in providing clean and accessible water for its citizens, especially considering target 6.2, which aims to ‘achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030…paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations’.

Demand for urban water and sanitation interventions continues to increase, especially due to the large numbers of people living in informal and congested urban settlements. Some 84 million urban Africans gained access to improved water supply and 42 million to improved sanitation between 2000 and 2010 – an average 3.9% increase in access over the decade; but urban populations also grew by an average of 3.9%.

Bringing water to urban populations

A huge infrastructure gap in Africa’s water sector restricts its transformation: the continent withdraws about 210 cubic metres of water per year per capita for economic activities, which is less than 40% of the global average. Water storage capacity is also very low, at less than 200 cubic metres per capita, compared to 1,100 in Mexico. African governments are lagging when it comes to meeting the continent’s massive infrastructure needs: the AfDB found that the continent invests only 4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in infrastructure, compared to China’s 14% investment. Bank estimates find that GDP growth could increase by an estimated 2 percentage points a year if Africa were to bridge its infrastructure gap.

Effective water management is synonymous with Africa meeting its sustainable development aspirations – when harnessed well, water provides stability and health and contributes to development and growth. Water is the single most important input of all productive activities, including food production, manufacturing, sustaining life, and processing. Women and girls primarily shoulder the burden of water collection. They are often the primary water users, providers and managers in their households and are thus disproportionately affected by the scarcity of adequate resources. This not only increases time poverty, it also has negative health, sanitation and educational impacts.

The 2013 Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights on unpaid care work found that in sub-Saharan Africa, 71% of the burden of collecting water for households falls on women and girls. Annually, women and girls spend 40 billion hours in total collecting water – the equivalent of France’s entire workforce. The health of women and girls over long periods of time is negatively affected by the physical burden of carrying heavy loads. For example, cumulative damage to the spine, the neck muscles and the lower back leads to early aging of the vertebral column. Limited water supplies mean less water is boiled for drinking and other hygiene purposes, thus increasing the likelihood of waterborne diseases. Global estimates of improvements in water access, however, do not reflect gender-disaggregated benefits and burdens.

Evidence shows that water and sanitation services are generally more effective if women take an active role throughout the various project stages, from design and planning, through to ongoing operations and maintenance procedures. A World Bank evaluation of 122 water projects found that the effectiveness of a project was six or seven times higher when women were involved than when they were not.

Existing urban water infrastructure cannot keep up with population growth, especially due to increased numbers of informal settlements, limited infrastructure, institutional weakness, inadequate governance, poor urban planning, and depleting water sources. Jacobsen et al. noted that over the next quarter century, demand for water in Africa is projected to nearly quadruple, surpassing the rates of other regions. The continent’s share of the global slum population was 14% in 1990; by 2005 it was 20%. Densely crowded informal settlements lead to institutional, financial and technical challenges for governments when trying to address water and sanitation problems.

Urban sanitation challenges

About 70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lacks access to improved sanitation facilities. Africa’s population growth is far outpacing the increase in access to sanitation facilities: since 2000, 133 million Africans gained access to improved sanitation facilities, yet there were 141 million more people in 2012 without sanitation than in 2000. Thus, more than 50% of Africa’s healthcare burden is associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

Poor sanitation facilities in the home force women and girls to use unsecured locations outside the home – putting their safety at risk. Limited access to sanitation facilities in schools negatively impacts school retention rates of girls, including their progression up the educational ladder following puberty. According to a 2015 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a study in Tanzania found a 12% increase in girls’ school attendance when water was available less than 15 minutes away compared to more than half an hour away. Such factors reduce the ability of poor people to improve their livelihoods: adults are prevented from working effectively and there is a detrimental effect on children’s learning. Adequate sanitation facilities would positively impact the economic and educational productivity of women and girls and their personal safety and dignity.

Poor water and sanitation facilities are also attributed to aggravating pandemics such as cholera, the Zika virus, and Ebola. As previously mentioned, informal and overcrowded settlements have limited water and sanitation facilities, including low water quality, unreliable supply and unsanitary storage, all of which lead to unhygienic conditions and the rapid and uncontrollable spread of disease. A study on the gender dimensions of the recent Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone found that non-availability of water in the homes and distance to water points had implications for women and girls whose role it was to fetch water. During the quarantine period, women and girls had to find means to get water and had to regularly face manipulation and sexual exploitation from the guards who were stationed to ensure they did not leave their houses. The study found that even though there was high knowledge (99%) of the need to wash hands and avoid touching people, in practice water shortages compromised effective handwashing practices.

Addressing gender gaps in urban water and sanitation

Organisations face obstacles in implementing gender policies that directly affect women in water and sanitation programmes and projects. Gender training tends to inform policymakers but has a limited effect on attitude changes due to the male-dominated nature of sector institutions. Such issues restrict effective water and sanitation interventions by preventing the implementation and monitoring of targeted policies and programmes to reduce the disproportionately heavy costs on women’s well-being associated with poor access to safe water and sanitation services. Increasing women’s participation in decision-making bodies in water service design, implementation, operations and maintenance would ensure inclusivity and sustainable interventions.

Women face both challenges and opportunities in the urban water and sanitation sector. For example, small and often informal enterprises supply water and sanitation services to households beyond the reach of public water supply and sanitation (WSS) infrastructure, such as in informal and congested settlements. These alternative service providers (ASPs) use private supplies including wells, water kiosks, public stand posts, tankers, and informal distribution networks to fill the WSS infrastructure gap. The percentage of unconnected households served by ASPs is high in countries where household connection rates are lower. In countries with very low (less than 30%) household connection rates, 13% of the unconnected urban population, on average, relies on water trucks or water vendors.

The Nairobi Water Company worked with ASPs in Kibera, one of Kenya’s largest slums, to create Maji Bora Kibera, an association of small-scale water providers that communicates and negotiates with the official utility to set standards and prices for their services. The positive gender impacts include women’s representation at decision-making levels in a business otherwise dominated by men. At 20%, women’s representation is higher than their actual numbers within the association. The number is secured by the association’s constitution. Such income-generating opportunities not only supply households beyond the WSS ‘grid’, they also supplement women’s household incomes.

The AfDB has noted the continent’s infrastructure gap and aims to be at the forefront of addressing the issue. The Ten Year Strategy 2013-2022, and High 5 Strategic Priorities (in particular, Industrialize Africa) both aim to place the Bank at the centre of Africa’s industrial transformation. Since 1968, the AfDB has approved 360 loans and grants in the water supply and sanitation sector, representing some US$ 7 billion or 7% of all loans and grants approved by sector and amount. In collaboration with other development partners, the AfDB works on initiatives to achieve water security and improved sanitation.

The Bank is a trustee of the African Water Facility Special Fund, which provides support to the NEPAD Water and Sanitation Programme. The Multi-Donor Water Partnership Program, hosted by the Bank with participation from the Netherlands, Canada and Denmark, promotes effective regional and national water management policies and practices. The programme operationalises the integrated water resources management policies in the Bank’s regional member countries.

The Bank’s Water and Sanitation Department is responsible for centralising the Bank’s contributions to achieving water security on the continent in order to accelerate green and inclusive development. The department’s strategic focus and priority areas recognise the vital role that women and girls play in the continent’s water and sanitation issues and as such strive to include them in sector interventions. All water and sanitation programmes financed by the Bank incorporate a gender dimension at all stages of the project cycle – from preparation through completion. All African Development Bank interventions in the urban water and sanitation sector require political support and commitment from the highest levels of local and national governments and the utilities.

The Bank’s Urban Water Sector Reform and Port-Harcourt Water Supply and Sanitation Project provides Port Harcourt residents with sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation. It aims to strengthen the Nigerian Government’s capacity to reform the urban water supply and sanitation sector in order to improve service delivery across the country. The project has established management contracts for the operation of the constructed public sanitation facilities targeting women and youth entrepreneurs. It specifically sought out women in consultations in order to integrate gender characteristics and opportunities. The project targeted women for the management of water kiosks and public sanitation facilities, which will have positive benefits for some of the 35% of households that are headed by women.

Africa’s governments face a major challenge in providing citizens with safe drinking water and basic sanitation, especially considering burgeoning urban populations and limited infrastructure. Taking into account the centrality of water as the most important input of all productive activities, tackling the challenges and opportunities in urban water and sanitation is not an option but a necessity. The Bank and its partners thus have to ensure the use of an inclusive approach where both women and men are equipped with the requisite knowledge, leadership capabilities, voice and agency to ensure equal access to improved water and sanitation services.

Sohna Aminatta Ngum is a Gender Specialist in the department of Gender, Women and Civil Society at the African Development Bank Group.

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