Africa boasts two of the world's mightiest rivers—the 6,400-kilometer Nile and the 4,370-kilometer Congo River. It has some of the world’s largest lakes such as Victoria and Tanganyika.
Photo courtesy of Yuuji Maruo
And yet huge numbers of the continent's 900 million people have only minimal access to water. A mere 36%, for instance, enjoy basic sanitation and some 288 million people do not have access to safe drinking water.
The health, social and economic costs are staggering. Partially because of the lack of safe water supplies some 85% of the 1.1 million people who die annually from malaria are in sub-Saharan Africa. Children here are 240 times more likely to catch diarrhea, with many of them subsequently dying, as kids in developed countries. Millions of mainly women and children spend most of their days hauling buckets of water from rivers or communal wells. Millions live in permanent poverty because of the lack of water to feed their animals, grow crops and earn a modest income.
Droughts and floods have increased in frequency and severity in the last 30 years and climate change experts say Africa will suffer disproportionately in coming decades further complicating access to water resources.
Why is there seemingly so much water available, yet so many people suffering? There are various reasons. The great water catchments in rivers and lakes is unevenly distributed around the continent. There are vast arid areas with little or no water which nevertheless are home to large populations. Rainfall is often erratic. Many nations are too poor, or sometimes unfocused, to build and maintain water and sewage systems in major population centers. That situation is getting worse as the entire continent continues to 'urbanize.'
Improving the water situation is one of the fundamental targets of the United Nations 2025 Millennium Goals and JICA is involved in a series of water projects across the continent.
Tanzania faces many of the typical dilemmas of many African countries. It is bordered by great lakes, but many areas of the country have no reliable access to water. It is one of the world's poorest countries with strictly limited funds to try to tackle a myriad of development headaches.
Major cities such as Dar es Salaam have become a magnet for the rural poor but fewer than 100,000 households in a city of 3.5 million people have access to running water. Most people have to visit community water points, buy water from ‘pushcart men’ or simply scavenge.
A group of Japanese experts are involved in a three-year project to help the city and three other districts along Tanzania’s eastern seaboard and a population, many of whom survive on the equivalent of $1 or less per day.
The experts are using decades of practical experience to teach local Tanzanian water officials, monitor and help strengthen the local water and sanitation administrative structures. Local water user committees have been established to administer the running of water boards and collect modest fees from the villagers to cover ongoing maintenance costs.
These boards are central to the concept of 'human security' where local communities are encouraged to become actively involved in projects affecting their own communities and are viewed by JICA as key to sustaining projects once foreign experts leave.
Team leader Yuichi Hata from Tokyo is typical, if perhaps somewhat more experienced, of JICA's water experts. He has already spent a veritable lifetime, 20 years, in African countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Burkina Faso and now Tanzania.
Perhaps his frenetic travel should not be a surprise. When he was young he always dreamed of being an explorer before he became an expert in geology and embarked on a career in water.
The current project will test all of his resources. Though Tanzania is one of Africa's most beautiful countries, home to the Serengeti grasslands and the famed Ngorongoro Crater, 40,000 kilometers of its roads remain unpaved and become virtually impassable to use during the rainy season complicating the simplest of everyday chores such as finding water.
Sharing this, and many other hardships faced by Tanzanians such as erratic electricity supplies and dirty water, Yuichi Hata says he still finds time to study in the bush, explore "new and different ideas" and enjoy the very simplicity of rural life.
But it will take a much stronger commitment by the world's richest nations, he says, if Tanzania is to reach its self-imposed target of bringing clean water to within easy reach of all of the country's 30 million people by the year 2025.