Written by Onyedi Obiukwu

Illustration by Andrew Sutherland

What has largely been left out of this discourse are the efforts we are making to overcome such a fate.

Our continent has scarce and ever-diminishing freshwater resources due to drought and variant rainfall, and faces rising demand from population growth and rapid urbanisation and industrialisation - but with proper management it has enough water for present and future generations.

“This is something we can solve,” says Columbia University Professor Upmanu Lall, one of the world’s leading water and climate change scientists and a panelist on the Water Security Session of the World Economic Forum held in 2011. “Not by the involvement of the Western countries, but by a strong local resolve to address the problems and take control of much of the external aid money that is coming in. Positive examples will build local capacity and also drive additional aid money to help.” Still, he adds, Africans need to control and shape their destiny themselves.

We have 63 trans-boundary river basins, large rivers like the Nile, Niger, Congo and Zambezi, and natural lakes Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi, among the world’s largest bodies of water. These water resources have the potential to serve even faraway dry regions, as shown by the Congo Water Pipeline Project, which aims to transfer water from the Congo River over the Angolan highlands to water-stressed Namibia and Botswana, both of which lie over 2 000 kilometres away.

Below the surface, scientists say, Africa is sitting on a vast reservoir of groundwater. According to research by the British Geological Society, the continent holds around 660 000 cubic kilometres of groundwater, more than 100 times the amount found on the surface and sufficient to cope with the impact of climate change. The challenge, however, is to effectively and sustainably harness these resources. Africans are tackling this through innovations that address thehuge gap in access to safe drinking water, maximise its use for food security, improve sanitation and ensure enough for future generations.

Access to safe drinking water is top of the to-do list, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, home to nearly halfof the over 663-million people in the world without potable water. Increased attention and efforts of governments and international development agencies since 1990 through the Millennium Development Goals has helped provide access for 427-million people in the sub-continent. However, according to data by the WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme, 319-million people — 80% of whom live in rural areas — are still left high and dry.

Tanzanian Chemical Engineer Askwar Hilonga is working on making water purer and safer to drink. His Nanofilter is a low-cost sustainable water purification system that utilises nanotechnology-based materials. “My unique innovation has the ability to manipulate the properties of nanomaterials to target and remove specific contaminants in water, to make it clean and safe for drinking,” says Hilonga.

The contaminants targeted are heavy metals, fluoride, biological contaminants (bacteria, viruses, protozoa, etc.) and organic pollutants (e.g. pesticides. In June, his Nanofilter won the newly-instituted African Prize for Engineering Innovation from the Royal Academy for Engineering.

“It could change the lives of thousands of Africans,” the academy said. Many of those lives would be in Hilonga’s home country of Tanzania, where, according to Safe Water Now, 88% of the infant mortality is caused by waterborne diseases.

Hilonga says he is preparing a strategic business plan to reach the 70% of Tanzanian households which are not using any kind of water purification or treatment system. He is also looking beyond his homeland to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, which faces similar challenges.

Grant Gibbs leads the Hippo Water Roller Project, based on a large, barrel-shaped water container invented by Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker in 1991, which can be easily moved over long distances simply by rolling it on the ground. The innovation is an effective, if interim, solution to the water challenges of many sub-Saharan rural communities whose arid land and sparse habitation make the direct connection of water pipes to their homes or more di cult to achieve.

Normally, the women and children of rural African communities have to carry large containers of water on their heads over long distances, often on a daily basis. The UN Environment Programme says this burns o as much as 40% of their caloric intake. The Hippo Water Roller reduces those energy losses, says Gibbs.

“The Hippo roller is very user-friendly for women, children and the physically weak as it makes the transportation of water much less strenuous than traditional methods. It is specifically designed for rural and economically poor communities, with low-to-none maintenance costs, and there is no need to access spare parts, which is very di cult in these areas.”

According to his organisation’s stats, 45 000 Hippo Rollers were in use in 2014, moving an estimated 7-billion litres of water through the year. Gibbs says the water in the Hippo – 90 litres when filled – is safe for drinking and can be used for irrigation of farms. “Clean, potable water is achieved by adding filters and other point-of-use water treatment products, and it features the irrigation cap-in-cap, which drastically improves the efficiency of irrigating crops.”

While primarily a water container, the roller is built to accommodate customisations for other purposes. One of them is as a trolley for vendors, nicknamed the Hippo Spaza. It is achieved by attaching a specially- designed steel frame to the roller to convert it into a simple trolley for transporting products, and then raising the roller to form a stand for displaying the products.

Gibbs said his organisation has also added the option of branding on the spaza or roller to attract corporate sponsors and advertisers. “It is not just about helping people in undeveloped communities fetch water more easily, it is also about aiding them make a better living.”

As Gibbs and his Hippo Water Roller Project try to ease the burden of fetching water in rural Africa, Zimbabwean scientist Dr Lloyd Muzangwa and Tanzanian engineer George Kahabuka have conceived the solar-powered ultraviolet (UV) device they call MAJI 1200 to disinfect water. “Whereas chemical disinfectants destroy or damage a microbe’s cellular structure, UV light inactivates microbes by damaging their DNA, thereby preventing the microbe’s ability to replicate (or infect the host,” Muzangwa explains.

The MAJI 1200 can be used as either a mobile or fixed water disinfection system and is easily adaptable to urban and rural areas. Its use of solar energy means it does not need electricity, which is unavailable or unstable in many communities. Muzangwa maintains that its high delivery-volumes mean communities, whether as households or schools, can share one. “Let’s say one unit per school,” he says, “Children, students and communities could be guaranteed access to safe drinking water at schools or at home.”

At US$1 500 per unit, and with no extra electricity or maintenance costs, the MAJI 1200 is relatively cheap, especially when purchased communally. “We are still making more research to bring the cost further down so that it becomes more affordable,” says Muzangwa.

The team is trying to raise money for further research and development through crowdfunding platforms such as Gofundme. With more funding, they plan to set up an installation plant in Africa to produce the system here (it is currently produced in the US and Switzerland). “We want to bring clean water to our people who do not have it,” Muzangwa enthuses. “Our motivation is more about helping our people than making profit.”

The use of nanotechnology and UV light “are excellent directions,” professor Lall says. “They should also look at grapheme oxide-based products for nano filtration. These could revolutionise water treatment, and they should be thinking not just of the African market but of the global market - the water issue is truly global and needs the same innovation worldwide.”


Another African innovation solving water challenges is the Aybar Broad Bed and furrows Maker (BBM), designed by Melesse Temesgen. It has been of significant help to many farmers, particularly in his home country Ethiopia, where crop losses are common due to waterlogging of farmlands. Low-cost and simple to use, the BBM ploughs waterlogged fields and drains the excess water from the soil, thus helping farmers plant more and often and conserve soil.

Prior to his innovation, most farmers in the highlands could only use of a quarter of their land because the rest was often too waterlogged. According to Aybar, close to 50 000 units sold in Ethiopia alone last year. Its success won Temesgen the Special Prize for Innovation with the Highest Social Impact at the 2014 Innovation Prizesfor Africa.

Sanitation is another area of great challenge; none of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa met the MDG targets for improving sanitation. “Sub-Saharan Africa has provided sanitation for less than 20% of the current population,” the Joint Monitoring Programme found. “Centralised, waterborne sanitation solutions are not viable for most rural areas and resource-constrained urban areas,” says Dudley Jackson, one of several Africans coming up with innovative, if not weird, sanitation solutions.

His Savvy Loo is so revolutionary, it is changing the perception that water-flush toilets are the sole means of adequate sanitation. The Savvy Loo is a waterless toilet which dries faeces for reuse as bio-energy and stores concentrated urine for extraction of nutrients and reuse as liquid fertiliser.

It got Jackson nominated for the Innovation Prize for Africa and has been lauded as a sustainable and affordable solution to the proliferation of unhealthy pit latrines which contaminate underground water tables. “Being a self-contained desiccating toilet, it provides dignity, prevents contamination of the user, and eliminates pathogens,” Jackson says.

It is also a potential shield against the predicted future of water scarcity, saving potential users an estimated 30 litres expended on flushing toilets daily. “Dry sanitation solutions would save a country such as South Africa about 300 billion litres of water each year,” Jackson says.

At the 2015 South Africa Sanitation Indaba, the South African minister of water and sanitation said that the country must work towards dry sanitation solutions for both low- and high-income households. Jackson is confident that the rest of the continent will follow suit in advocating dry sanitation and thus save trillions of litres of water, averting future water scarcity.

The Smartscan toilet is another sanitation innovation which could save more than 80 percent of the water expended in flushing toilets. Developed by South African company New World Sanitations Cooperation, it is a sewage digester and solar-powered water recycler that could reduce water used for flushing from 32 000 to 2 400 litres a year per household.

“We are aware of the challenges and numerous factors to be taken into account when designing a solution that will fit the unique South African and African environments,” CEO Jurgen Graupe said at the 2015 South African Sanitation Indaba.

The Smartscan comes with a reactor tank for sewage digestion and water recycling. Two sizes are offered: the smaller reactor has a volume of 1 600 litres, while the larger tank can take in 2 500 litres. After installation, the water tanks need to be topped up with 600 litres of water every three months.

“Maintenance required is very basic and can be performed by trained members of the community,” Graupe says. “The minor service involves flushing 500ml of anaerobic biological additive down the toilet once every three months. The major service: replace the nano filter set once per year, and de-sludge once per year.”

If Graupe’s Smartscan seems complex, Samuel Malinga’s solution is the extreme of simplicity. A sanitation engineer at Water for People Uganda, Malinga developed a set of low-cost sanitation technologies to addressing challenges in management of faecal sludge in schools, slums, and rural communities.

They are the DuraSan toilet, made of interlocking, precast concrete blocks; a low-cost pit-emptying pump called the Rammer, his answer to the problem of emptying full pit toilets in a sanitary manner; and a decentralised faecal sludge treatment system for areas lacking treatment plants. “The modular toilet can be constructed in two to three days,” Malinga says.

Like several others working on solutions to Africa’s water challenges, Malinga believes the answers have to be found within the continent, not outside it.

Akwar Hironga says the nano filter is one such innovation,“because it is now possible to use any kind of water available in someone’s vicinity. He points to the ability to tune nanomaterials to target specific contaminants in any source of water – ponds, rivers, lakes – as proof that any kind of water can now be purified and used for drinking.

“I believe that this and other African innovations – whether focused on the construction of wetlands, recycling or dry sanitation – will help us overcome our current water challenges and avoid a future of water scarcity.”

From left: Hilonga's nanofilter; Hippo roller; Aybar BBM

Opposite: Maji 1200