COVID-19 stresses the need to transform Africa’s water, sanitation and hygiene services sector

Women fetch water from a gravity flow stand pipe at Mirambi, in Bundibugyo district. The pipeline was restored with funds from UNICE after all the water sources were destroyed by floods in December 2019 and May 2020.

With funding from UNICEF, the district water department managed to rehabilitate boreholes and restored gravity flow schemes and today communities have access to safe water.

 Osward M. Chanda

Alarming headlines that announced the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Africa in March 2020 have given way to stories of chin-stroking scientists wondering about the reasons for the relatively mild impact – compared to other continents – which COVID-19 has had on Africa.

More than 41,000 Africans have died, and at least 1.7 million people are infected with coronavirus, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While one death is one too many, these figures are a far cry from the dire predictions of doom for the continent made by scientists and pundits prior to the arrival of the disease.

But the battle against the pandemic is far from over. Governments and their development partners need to fortify their defenses against the disease by providing greater access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services to protect their people from COVID-19 and water-borne diseases.

After all, more than 40 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa does not have access to clean water and cannot follow the advice of health experts to wash their hands as a primary way to stop the spread of the virus.


Preventing infection remains out of reach for 400 million people on the continent who lack access to improved water supply. Diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, skin diseases, and other diseases are prevalent in many areas where access to WASH services is limited.

The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call to all of us – member states, development partners and allies in Africa and beyond – to prioritize WASH service delivery, in the presence of competing needs.

Access to WASH is crucial to boost resilience to multiple threats, including current and future pandemics – especially for the poorest people in Africa. Helping water utilities deliver clean and reliable water, provide sanitation to those who need it most, and promote effective handwashing practices helps to protect people short term, and prevents future outbreaks.

The African Development Bank’s partnerships with African governments to provide WASH services have taken various dimensions, from small village water schemes, through large urban sanitation infrastructure projects, to national integrated WASH programs.

But perhaps the programs with the greatest impact on the most beneficiaries are the regional, multi-country ones that also deliver enormous economies of scale. This is the case with the Lake Victoria Water Supply and Sanitation Program. This program, with nearly $100 million in Bank funding, contributed significantly to the reduction of Lake Victoria pollution through improved sustainable water supply and sanitation infrastructure in 15 towns in the lake basin, spread across the East African Community partner states Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The Lake Victoria program is part of an initiative to address water and sanitation needs of about 44.5 million people who live on the shores of this major body of water.

The program brought significant benefits to these communities, achieving 80 percent coverage in water supply and 60 percent coverage in sanitation in the 15 target towns. The population practicing good hygiene rose to 48.8 percent against a target of 30 percent and 66 percent of public places had sanitary facilities, including for the disabled.

The Bank’s investment of an estimated $6.4 billion in strengthening core WASH infrastructure systems over the last decade has provided an estimated 52 million more people access to improved water, sanitation, and hygiene, as well as increased disease prevention preparedness.

The Bank’s WASH interventions support African governments in their COVID-19 emergency responses and preparedness. The success of multifaceted, transnational interventions such as the Lake Victoria project has attracted more development partners into the African WASH sector, and increasingly, private investors.

The Bank has broadened its approach to include negotiating with frontline departments like ministries of finance and economic planning, since Africa loses an estimated 5 percent of its Gross Domestic Product to poor water development and management, and 5 to 25 percent of GDP due to climate change impacts.


We are also placing emphasis on private sector participation, which provides a promising solution to sustainable management and financing of water services. These measures, which are in line with the objectives of the Sanitation and Water (SWA) for All global partnership to achieve universal access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.

Despite the multiple benefits that access to WASH services delivers, this sector is chronically underfunded. We join our SWA global partners to call upon finance and sector ministers to make WASH a central part of any post-COVID-19 national recovery plans, as access to WASH provides improved pandemic resilience, creates employment opportunities, and health benefits.

  • Osward Chanda is an African Development Bank manager responsible for water security and sanitation, overseeing a portfolio of over $4.5 billion. He has been instrumental in mobilising co-financing and global climate/environmental financing for the sector.