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Climate change and African urban sanitation systems: Notes from Africa Water Week




December 4, 2018


The provision of safely managed sanitation services for African cities was high on the agenda at the 7th Africa Water Week. 700 million Africans don’t have access to improved sanitation and massive a infrastructure gap and financing shortfall for the sector remains over Africa. FCFA hosted a discussion on the impacts of climate change on the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, particularly for growing informal settlements that characterise urbanisation across the continent.

The 7th Africa Water Week was held in Libreville, Gabon, from 29 October to 2 November, 2018. High on the agenda was safely managed sanitation. The Africa Sanitation Policy Guidelines were launched at the African Ministerial Conference, held alongside the water week. A dedicated conference theme on approaches and actions for safely managed sanitation in Africa by 2030 saw well-attended technical breakout sessions and engaging discussions between national and local governments, development financiers, researchers, and civil society.

Proceedings from these sessions highlighted several issues and initiatives currently shaping the delivery of sanitation services and infrastructure across the continent. These are relevant to the framing of research questions that aim to understand the impacts of climate change on this sector, and create feasible and operationalizable solutions. Below are a few points from my conference notebook.

There is big financing shortfall for WASH infrastructure and it’s getting bigger

There is uncertainty about the exact size of the funding gap for African infrastructure, but it appears large. Estimates put the required annual investment at US$ 120 – 174bn, whilst the overall commitments to Africa’s infrastructure from all reported sources, and across all sectors, was $62.5bn in 2016. Of these commitments, only US$ 10.5bn, of which US$ 4.4bn from African national governments, went to the water sector. In turn, half of this was committed to irrigation and drainage. Sanitation is therefore an underfunded sub-sector, in an underfunded sector, across a region with massive underinvestment in infrastructure. Available data from 2013 onwards point to an overall trend of decreasing commitments to infrastructure financing on the continent.

“African Infrastructure Commitment Trends by Sector, 2012 – 2016 (From: Infrastructure Financing Trends in Africa 2016, The Infrastructure Consortium for Africa Secretariat c/o African Development Bank).”

  The sanitation sector faces special challenges to access climate finance

The sanitation and waste water treatment sector currently faces difficulty in quantifying the impacts of climate change on particular sanitation projects and the incremental cost of project adaptation. This poses a significant challenge in accessing climate finance. The Green Climate Fund (GCF), for instance, is placing a stronger emphasis on improving the climate rationale for its projects. This requires improved data to demonstrate the underpinning scientific basis for vulnerability to climate hazards and the impact this will have on the proposed project, together with incremental adaptation options and costs.

Many of the participants at Africa Water Week were critical of approaches that require a clear distinction between development and adaptation. The distinction benefits projects working on climate information services and better data generation, but disadvantages many projects in the water sector for several reasons. Firstly, future climate projections are inherently uncertain, especially with regard to rainfall and related impacts. Secondly, identifying climate impacts are complex and require expertise in several related disciplines. Without expertise in climate fields, developers will have to contract experts to provide analyses, which can be very costly. Lastly, access and availability of climate data and information is a limiting factor in identifying potential impacts for many African locations.

More importantly, in many instances adaptation and development are intimately and fundamentally related. “Proving ‘additionality’ misses the larger point that WASH projects ought to be conceived in the context of climate change” says  Dr Charles Reeves, from the Climate Resilient Infrastructure Development Facility. Rather than “adding on” climate change in a narrowly conceived project, climate change may require a fundamentally different conceptualisation of a project. For instance, assessing resilience to future climate change may require WASH project developers to consider resilience at the river basin scale, rather than preconceived local or national projects which are currently the norm.

There are initiatives, such as the Africa Project Preparation Partnership for Climate Resilient Water Projects, to support knowledge exchange between countries as their experience in preparing, financing, and implementing water projects grows, in particular, in the context of the GCF.

Lack of faecal sludge management and treatment services and infrastructure provide a major health hazard in many African cities

Most African cities are characterised by high rates of urbanisation and growing informal neighbourhoods and systems. In most instances, the roll-out of formal and centrally managed WASH infrastructure is falling behind this growth. In many growing African cities the issue of untreated faecal sludge and open defecation presents a major and growing health risk. According to Dr Canisius Kenangire, Executive Secretary of AMCOW “315 000 children die annually due to waterborne diseases, whilst open air defecation is increasing, currently at 220 million people”.

Break-out sessions provided more detailed data on the local scale of the challenge. In the city of Kisumu (Kenya), 67% of waste is released into the environment untreated (most of it faecal sludge, and some waste water). In Kampala the figure is 46%.

African cities are experimenting with new approaches to address the urban sanitation gap

The scale of current challenges alongside the lack of sufficient funding (by either governments or donor aid) for the roll-out of infrastructure such as sewerage is necessitating novel solutions in the interim. For instance, several African cities are experimenting with locally led and context-specific approaches to autonomous on-site sanitation for non-sewer and faecal sludge management systems. Peer-to-peer learning networks between African cities play a key role in advancing knowledge in this area.

Participants at Africa Water Week shared experiences from eThekwini, Kampala, Dakar and Yaounde. Most of the shared initiatives are focusing on different public-private partnership (PPPs) models for community level collection and transport of faecal sludge. The RASOP-Africa programme (Reinforcing African Sanitation Operators capacity through peer-to-peer learning Partnerships) has supported and documented much of this innovation.

Most of the participating cities in the RASOP programme have had some success with increasing demand, and decreasing cost for pit emptying services through PPPs. Though the participating cities had varied implementation models, generally the public sector was responsible for  regulation and enforcement, research, and mobilizing investment, whilst the private sector was responsible for service delivery, innovation and monitoring. RASOP-Africa projects delivered a holistic package of interventions. These included hosting city call centres to receive and redirect faecal sludge management queries and service requests; benchmarking and performance assessments; training of pit emptiers (on new technologies and PPPs); updating strategic urban sanitation plans; and updating monitoring and advocacy tools (such as “Shit Flow Diagrams”).

Whilst many challenges remain for this sector, the progress noted at Africa Water Week is encouraging. It is clear that an improved scientific understanding of how climate change may impact urban sanitation needs to integrate the socio-technological systems through which community level service provision and infrastructure are delivered. Linking domestic adaptation responses and centralised processing of faecal sludge and waste water is key in order to drive adaptive responses with felt impacts.

Making the link between urban sanitation and climate change

Whilst climate change enjoys high visibility on AMCOW’s agenda, FCFA was the only initiative to host a dedicated discussion linking climate change to the provision of inclusive and sustainable urban water, sanitation and drainage services. The session brought together climate change and WASH experts, city officials, and civil society and community representatives through videos and presentations. Key messages from research include:

In many African cities, the main climate-related hazard facing WASH systems in vulnerable communities are floods that destroy infrastructure and services at a domestic and community level. In many locations, flooding is projected to become more frequent and intense. Climate change risks to urban WASH services should be assessed across three scales: 1) domestic facilities and services (e.g. access to toilets), 2) collection and conveyance of excreta (sewers and trucks), and 3) treatment of faecal sludge and wastewater. Currently there is a particular gap in understanding how to deal with community scale services and a focus on the active management of services rather than infrastructure.

Even with significant improvements in climate models, there will always remain an envelope of uncertainty and therefore several potential futures to consider. Since there is no single message about what the future climate might look like, decision-makers have to make planning decisions with uncertainty in mind. One general approach to increase resilience in the face of uncertainty is to improve the integration and connection of water systems, along with diversifying alternative sources of water supply. This can significantly mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, or at least narrow the uncertainty related to climate change impacts.

It takes a lot of collaboration and exploration between city stakeholders and researchers to shape useful and interesting research and find the most important overlaps between climate science, adaptation and the WASH sector. A significant investment of time and resources are key to build relationships and understand a particular urban WASH context before formulating climate change research questions. Good ways of doing this include embedding researchers in city government, interactive learning labs, and developing “climate narratives”. Climate narratives are robust stories about possible futures that serve to start conversations across disciplinary and expert divides. These can help multi-stakeholder groups think through different possible climate change impacts on WASH.

In response to the presentations, stakeholders from eThekwini, Lusaka and Kisumu shared their lived experience of dealing with WASH challenges on a daily basis and operational solutions that they are employing in order to deliver WASH services. Participants in the session responded to these videos with noteworthy experiences of their own:

eThekwini city authorities have taken a general stance that informal settlements are “there to stay” and an integral part of the city’s growth. “Where we provide sanitation is where people have chosen to stay themselves. People get there first and then we follow with sanitation services.” said Ednick Msweli, Head of eThekwini’s Water and sanitation Unit. This may raise new challenges in building resilience to extreme climate events, as informal settlements are often established on marginal public land in flood prone areas or where it may be difficult to extend infrastructure to. For the city of eThekwini the most pressing climatic pressure is drought; technological solutions to reduce the 40% of potable water currently being used for toilet flushing is key.

An official from the city of Dakar confirmed how climate risks has exacerbated the funding shortfall Dakar faces in providing urban sanitation for all: “[Dakar] campaigned to subsidize 80% of pit emptying costs, however, a very wet rainy season filled pits very quickly… We received 6000 requests over 8 month period with 80% of requests met, but had to end the programme prematurely and close the call centre as we had no funds left after subsidising emptying.”

Taking conferences virtual

Several participants noted that they enjoyed the short videos from stakeholders in the cities sharing their lived experiences, challenges and solutions with the conference attendees. Preparing several pre-recorded interventions for the conference enabled us to significantly increase the pool of expertise and perspectives we could bring into the room for discussion. More effort to facilitate a mix of virtual and in-person interactions at conferences seem to be a good strategy to keep audiences interested, attract a more diverse panel, and cut down on travel cost and emissions.

Recordings of all the session presentations and videos, along with slide decks are available on the FCFA website.