Covid19 has underlined the water problem facing Africa

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Wash your hands with soap often under running water: This is probably one of the most uttered pieces of advice against the spread of COVID-19. But how do you wash your hands if you don't have access to clean water?



Women and children gather dam water at sunset near Savelugu, Ghana


At a dam located in Damakon Yili near Tamale, in Ghana's northern region, several women and children carefully tread into the shallow water. This dam is where the entire community fetches water for their home needs. Nimatu Issahaku, one of the women, says they have no options. "For us, this is good water because we have no alternative, so we have to use it," she said.

This community has no tap water, although Nimatu knows about the importance of using clean water to fight the virus. "They said we should wash our hands in running water, but we don't have that kind of water unless we use the dam water."



This dam serves about 2,000 households in three communities. Fatahiya Zakaria, another woman at the dam, told DW that her community is exposed. "It disturbs us. Everyone talks about using clean water but if the water is not clean, what becomes of your hygiene? This water is too dirty to protect us."

Clean water issues are nothing new across the African continent. In rural arid regions of Namibia or Mali, water may simply be unavailable. And in wet regions like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania or Mozambique, poor or non-existent sanitation has resulted in unsafe drinking water, which has been behind the cholera outbreaks in recent years.

Little access to tap water

According to UN children's agency, UNICEF, an estimated 5 million Ghanaians rely on groundwater to meet their daily needs, leaving them vulnerable to water-related diseases. For resident Ziblim Ibrahim, this is unacceptable, especially while Ghana is fighting the coronavirus pandemic. "We don't have piped water. We always fetch from the dam. Our problem is that someone could have the [COVID-19]virus and come to enter the dam."

Not all communities have local dams, and some have to travel far to fetch their water. But for most rural Ghanaians, this is a normal, albeit stressful, task.

A man fetching water.

Tap clean water remains a challenge for many Africans as the continent grapples with COVID-19

To fight the virus, the Ghanaian government has deployed tankers to provide free water to communities that are not connected to the main grid. But many are not benefiting from this relief.

Near water, but with no water

The Kenyan town of Kisumu, one of East Africa's biggest and most livable cities, is a stone's throw away from Lake Victoria, Africa's largest freshwater body. However, street vendor Samuel Koyondo struggles to find clean water. "We have the Ministry of Water there, Lake Victoria there, but at times you can go for three days without water," Koyondo told BW.

"Yet they say wash your hands with soap, use sanitizers and remember everything goes with water. They [the government] added 21 more days [of movement restrictions]. How do you expect us to survive in this situation, really?"  

A person washed hands with soap

WHO recommends regular hand-washing with soap under running water for at least 20 seconds

While residents like Harriet Mutesi may want to follow hygiene guidelines necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, her access to water, or lack thereof, limits her. "The government is urging us to keep washing hands and maintain hygiene, but we have many challenges," Mutesi told BW.

"I have to walk a long distance of about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to access clean water," she said, complaining that this has inconvenienced her family because they have to keep washing their hands over and over.

Beautician Sheila Nabatanzi had to temporarily close her salon because, apart from the government ban on hairdressers, restaurants and bars, she couldn't rely on a constant supply of clean drinking water. "When water supply is low a jerrycan (5-liter/1.3 gallon container) could go for about 500 Kenya shillings (€4/$5) or 300 [Kenya shillings] and that could be expensive in a season like this, when people do not have enough money."

Zimbabwe's water woes

Southern Africa also has its problems. Zimbabweans had water issues even before COVID-19 struck, and the pandemic has only served to highlight the dilapidated state of basic water infrastructure.

Blessing Gwanyira, an activist with the Zimbabwean watchdog Citizens Health Watch, told DW her experience before the coronavirus outbreak. "One woman had just given birth at one of the local clinics in the rural areas. She told me that ever since she gave birth, she had not bathed because there was no water," Gwanyira said.

"Water is a challenge. You can imagine it's a health facility where people are supposed to be exercising high levels of hygiene."

People queue for water in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe's perennial water shortages makes it difficult to maintain hand hygiene

For Jestina Mukoko of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a human rights monitoring group, the problems go much deeper. Wealthy Zimbabweans can simply drill water boreholes for their homes while the vast majority of Zimbabweans cannot afford this luxury. Instead, they rely on a distinctly unreliable network of water points.

"At this time when we are trying to fight the coronavirus which really requires people to be extremely hygienic, it becomes problematic if someone cannot get the water within their own household or within their own grounds. That they have to go out to be able to get water," Mukoko said.

Like in most crisis situations in poor areas, some unscrupulous people are trying to make profit, one way or another. "There are young people who have recognized that they could be making money out of this scarcity of water," Mukoko told BW. "They take huge containers of water and lots of buckets, fill them up with water and then they go about selling the water."

Inadequate basic services and access to clean water have consistently plagued Africa. Before COVID-19, these conditions were borderline manageable. Now, Africa's battle against COVID-19 has laid them bare.