Unlocking water security in Africa: Mayors hold the key

Water is our most essential resource. The “blue gold” sustains agriculture, energy production and industry, but also economic growth and healthy ecosystems, communities and cities. Water is a human right, and yet we do not have equal access to it.

The way we govern water affects billions of lives, especially where there is too much, too little or overly polluted water. Fifteen years of OECD water work shows that saving money on water security is a false economy that costs us in lost lives, health and infrastructure. Investments in water security and economic growth are closely linked. No country, region or city can take its water security for granted.

African cities face severe droughts, and much more

On World Water Day 2022, the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal shines a light on the daunting challenge in Africa. Images of water scarcity abound on this fast-urbanising continent, which is particularly vulnerable to climate change and rising temperatures.

Without action, 160 million Africans in urban areas will face continual water shortages by 2050. Over the past 30 years, floods have also become more frequent and widespread, with 654 episodes affecting 38 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. In the same region, an estimated 115 people die every hour from diseases related to improper hygiene, poor sanitation or contaminated water.

More than half of the urban population in Africa lives in informal settlements, relying on shared toilets and public water points for basic handwashing. In African urban areas, only 20% of residents have access to safely managed sanitation and 25% to basic sanitation“.

African Mayors are already taking action

Mayors and city leaders hold the key to water security. They are closer to citizens and oversee critical investments and decisions related to land use, solid waste, infrastructure and environmental amenities. They can drive water security and promote low cost, green and nature-based solutions. Even where water policies remain highly centralised, mayors are taking bold action to fix water pipes and institutions. For example:

  • In 2019, after Cape Town in South Africa was confronted with the threat of completely run out of water – known as “day zero”, the Mayor adopted a Water Strategy to guarantee safety from future droughts. It included a groundwater supply project aiming to supply up to 30 million litres of water per day and the construction of a large-scale desalination plant to be operational by 2024.
  • As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr launched the Freetown-Blue Peace project to leverage innovative finance to implement sustainable water projects. This included setting up 40 water kiosks and 25 public toilets in informal settlements.

African Mayors are also working with peers in the global North. A new phase of the project Solidarité Eau pools capacity and funding with Lausanne and 19 Swiss municipalities or service providers. It commits one cent per cubic meter of water sold to improve access to water and sanitation in the arid area of Nouakchott in Mauritania. In 2020, a Strategic Sector Corporation project was launched between the cities of Tema in Ghana and Aarhus in Denmark, to help reduce pollution and deliver sustainable water to residents and businesses.

Mayors need to team up with national governments

Many solutions to water challenges cut across levels of government and require strong partnerships. They also require skills, good governance, high quality investment, planning and infrastructure. Innovative local projects don’t emerge without supporting national policy frameworks. In South Africa, the Constitution sets out an obligation for national and provincial governments to support municipalities responsible for drinking water supply, domestic wastewater and sewage disposal services.

With mounting pressures on water resources from climate, urbanisation and demographic trends in Africa, more partnerships between national and local leaders are needed. Mayors in particular now need to turn the key to unlock the development of better water policies for better lives.

The OECD and UCLG Africa joined forces to launch a new  Roundtable of African Mayors for Water Security. The Roundtable will bring more than 50 Mayors from cities of different sizes across the five sub-regions of Africa to facilitate the design and implementation of more robust local water policies.

At the 9th World Water Forum, Mayors from across the globe united to applaud this initiative and adopt an Action Plan to leverage the 12 OECD Principles on Water Governance to ensure the right to water and sanitation, foster rural-urban linkages, catalyse innovative finance, promote inclusive governance and advance cooperation for future-proof and resilient water systems.

For more information on OECD work on water governance, visit: www.oecd.org/water/regional/

Head of Division - Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development, Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities at | Website | + posts

Aziza Akhmouch is the Head of the Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development division within the Centre for entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities of the OECD. She oversees a team of 30+ experts providing governments with new data, evidence, analysis and guidance in a wide range of urban policies to foster smart, inclusive, competitive and sustainable cities. Amongst others, she oversees the OECD metropolitan and National Urban Policy Reviews, and a broad range of thematic work related to housing, transport, cities and inclusive growth, cities and environment, metropolitan productivity and governance, and localising the Sustainable Development Goals. Aziza Akhmouch spearheaded the OECD Principles on Urban Policy and the OECD Water Governance Initiative. She also manages the OECD Champion Mayors Initiative for Inclusive Growth, the OECD Roundtable of Mayors and Ministers, and the OECD-UN Habitat-Cities Alliance National Urban Policy Platform. She holds a PhD and Ms Degree in Geography, specialised in Geopolitics from the University of Paris 8-Vincennes, and a Master’s degree in international relations.

Secretary-General at United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa) | + posts

Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi has been the Secretary-General of United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa) since 2007. He was the Chairperson of the Cities Alliance Interim Management Board untill April 2016. He is also Co-Chair of World Cities Scientific Development Alliance-WCSDA, and Deputy Secretary-General of the China-Africa forum of local governments. Mr. Elong Mbassi has a rich experience of nearly 40 years in the field of urban development and planning, urban services, local economic development, local governance, housing and slum upgrading. UCLG-Africa contributed to the recent OECD report on Water Governance in African Cities and is partnering with OECD on the Roundtable of African Mayors for Water Security.

Policy Analyst at | Website | + posts

Melissa Kerim-Dikeni works as a Policy Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as part of the Water Governance and Circular Economy Unit. At the OECD, Melissa is working on the OECD/UCLG-Africa Roundtable of African Mayors for Water Security and the Women in Water Decision-Making Programme. Mélissa has been working in the sustainability field for the past 5 years with various organisations (ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, GIZ, United Nations, etc). She is a lawyer (Parisian bar) and she is exploring the governance of just energy transition as part of her PhD.