NEPAD Water Initiative
Ben - For many of us, a glass of clean water is literally just a turn of the tap away. But in many countries, millions of people still don't have access to safe water or sanitation. The death toll directly linked to this is 1.6 million people per year. This is not an insignificant fraction of people. One initiative that's been trying to tackle the problem South Africa is the South African-based New Partnership for African Development or NEPAD for short. Meera Senthilingam spoke to Eugene Cloete, from the University of Stellenbosch who chairs the executive committee heading the initiative.
Eugene - NEPAD is an acronym for the New Partnership for African Development which was formed to address a whole variety of issues on the African continent. It was decided that water science and technology would be one of the flagship programs. And the way that they organised this was to identify people working at research institutions and universities in the South African Development Community countries who we have competence in the field of water research.
Meera - So what are the main aims of the NEPAD water initiative?
Eugene - Well first of all, it is to build capacity in terms of people that could go into government and people that also, at the technical level, could champion certain initiatives that will increase the sanitation situation, the water quality in terms of potable water guarantees, to improve conservation and the utilisation of the continent's water resources and then also to enlarge the range of technologies for water supply and approve access.
Meera - But how big a problem is water availability exactly in the Southern African countries?
Eugene - They have this saying in Africa that water comes in three forms: too much, too dirty, or too little. All three of these are addressed by the NEPAD initiative. We can take a few countries here and we can look at say, the urban and rural areas. If we take for instance, a country like Mozambique which has a population of around 20 million people, 47% of the people there have access to safe water in the urban area, and in rural areas, only 40%. So, it would be approximately 10 million people there that don't have access. If we go on to sanitation in Mozambique, the situation gets worse, only 53% of the people living in urban areas have access to improved sanitation. This would be something like a flush toilet, while in rural areas, only 15%.
Meera - So that's a high percentage of the population that don't have access to clean water and sanitation, but what are the actual causes of these? What are the issues that need to be addressed in order to help provide access to this other 50%?
Eugene - Well first of all, where people live. The distribution of people, they live scattered very often over the countryside. Where you have small villages where it would be very difficult in terms of economic considerations but also, very often, practical considerations to pipe water to these communities. If they were living altogether, in an urban environment, it becomes a lot easier and this is why we have much bigger access to safe water in urban environments. The other is purely the lack of knowledge on how to clean water, so that it becomes potable for human consumption. It gets worse when you talk about sanitation, because if you rely on water-borne sanitation, you need a lot of water. Now many, many people in Africa do not get their water coming out of the pipe, they do not have a flush toilet, they have to walk 4 to 5 kilometres a day to fetch water and they will not use that water except for cooking, washing, and drinking.
Meera - What is the initiative actually hoping to do then in order to tackle some of these issues?
Eugene - We are looking at our range of projects at the moment. The one is looking seriously at roof-top rain water harvesting because what that does is, it brings the water to people in a de-centralised fashion. So it's a new way of thinking about it, and there are a whole variety of different sanitation systems now which work with minimal water which can then be used for irrigation and you could actually have a zero effluent system where people can grow their own vegetables, and so on. That's one of the alternatives. I don't think going the way of providing pipes in all of the areas is feasible. Many of the people are not there on a permanent basis. They are basically living in shanty towns and you don't necessarily want to entrench that by providing infrastructure there, but rather develop areas to which they can move with infrastructure. The second is to use technologies for disinfection purposes. For instance, the soda system developed in Switzerland, where you take water, put that into a plastic bottle, and you leave that out in the sun for a few hours, two to three hours, and that will sterilize the water. We have also got a project based on nanotechnology for instance where we have in the bottle type filter, containing activated carbon and nano bioscience which then will provide safe water, both from a chemical, and a microbiological point of view. The application of that would've been for instance in Zimbabwe. About a year ago, there were 80,000 cases of cholera. All those cases could have been prevented if people knew about these low-key technologies which could make that water safe.
Ben - So it seems that there is small things that we can do will make an enormously big difference. That was Eugene Cloete from the University of Stellenbosch. He was talking to Meera Senthilingam.