Africa is facing an enormous water crisis afflicting 300 million Africans and claiming 6,000 lives a year, a major summit heard on Monday.
Water scarcity is also rapidly increasing the dangers of “social and political conflict” among booming city populations, senior United Nations officials warned.
The warning came at a high level five-day summit in Addis Ababa attended by African government ministers representing more than 40 countries, and some 1,000 delegates.
Although water is in abundant supply on the world’s poorest continent it is poorly managed and is fuelling a catastrophic crisis, officials were told.
African ministers are appealing for some US $16 billion a year from major financial institutions such as the World Bank to help address the continent’s mammoth water woes.
Egyptian Water Minister Dr Mahmoud Abu-Zeid accused rich nations of “turning their backs on the poor” by failing to provide massive financial support.
He said without enormous financial backing and political commitment from African leaders, impoverished nations "will never escape the vicious cycle of poverty”.
Dr Abu-Zeid also called upon African countries to ensure peace and security by working together to avoid the threat of disputes sparked by water shortages.
Kingsley Amoako, head of the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) estimated that US $20 billion a year was needed to help get water to 300 million Africans.
But as yet just US $4 billion is spent per year on water supply and sanitation. As a result, millions live in appalling conditions and needlessly die, Amoako told the conference.
He also challenged African governments to “put their money where their mouth is” and commit five percent of their national budgets to funding water projects.
At present some countries are spending as little as one percent of their budgets on water supply – relying on foreign aid to make up the difference.
Amoako told delegates that desertification of the continent, as well as years of poor management and widespread environmental degradation, must be reversed.
“We owe it to our children and grandchildren to address all these concerns with haste,” he said. “If we fail to do so, history will not judge us kindly.”
Under plans being drawn up, African governments are looking to work together to harness the power of rivers on the continent to avoid the threat of so-called “water wars”.
More than two thirds of Africa’s 60 river basins are shared by more than one country – further fuelling potential clashes over how they should be used.
Key ideas emanating from the conference are fresh water supply to local populations, hydropower generation, tourism and agriculture.
The key summit is the first of its kind in bringing together political leaders and experts from across the continent to establish an action plan aimed at the proper use of water.
Anna Tibaijuka, head of UN Habitat, said failing to utilise water effectively would undermine important economic and political strides made on the continent.
“This economic recovery could be in peril if Africa fails to manage its water resources efficiently and equitably,” she warned.
She also said impoverished Africans living in slums on the continent were being forced to pay five times as much as people living in rich nations for a litre of clean water.
In less than two decades, 500 million people would be living in cramped conditions in the continent’s burgeoning cities – most without clean water," she added.
“Water scarcity is fast becoming a potential source of social and political conflict,” she noted. “Poor service provision is extremely detrimental to the health and economy of the African continent.”