Executive summary

COVID-19 has acted as a magnifying glass on pressing water and sanitation challenges in African cities, stressing and widening inequalities for the 56% of the urban population living in informal settlements and relying on shared toilet facilities and public water points for basic handwashing facilities. With about 100 000 COVID-19 related deaths as of February 2021, according to available statistics, Africa is not the hardest-hit continent but African cities, alongside national governments, with higher population densities and large numbers of crowded places such as markets and public transport, have been acutely affected by the need for policy action to contain the spread of the virus.

Before the pandemic, African countries and cities were already facing mounting water challenges. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 40% of people lack basic access to water supply and 70% to basic sanitation, in addition to challenges from concomitant floods, droughts and pollution. More specifically, in urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 80% of the population resides, only 20% have access to safely managed sanitation and 25% to basic sanitation, with significant variations across countries. According to Joint Monitoring Programme reporting, in 2017, only 9% of the urban population in Liberia had access to safely managed water services compared to 99% in South Africa, and these gaps have been growing since 2000. In addition to longstanding scarcity challenges, floods are the most frequent and widespread water-related disaster in Africa, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where 654 floods affected 38 million people over the last 33 years. In African cities, flood risks (whether flash pluvial, costal or fluvial) are exacerbated by rapid urbanisation, uncontrolled urban growth and unregulated informal settlements on low-lying floodplain areas. Contaminated water is another major issue in Africa: every hour, an estimated 115 people die from diseases related to improper hygiene, poor sanitation or contaminated water.

In addition to the ongoing economic transformation of Africa, megatrends related to climate change, urbanisation and population growth add pressure on water resources. It is estimated that the total number of people living in urban areas with a perennial water shortage will increase to 162 million by 2050. Moreover, Africa is among the most vulnerable continents to climate change, with projected temperatures expected to rise faster than the global average throughout the 21st century and two-thirds of African cities at “extreme” risk of climate-related shocks; exacerbated by high population growth (4% per annum) and poor urban infrastructure. No less than 86 of the 100 fastest-growing cities in the world are located in Africa most of which are sprawling extensively. Between now and 2050, two thirds of on-going urbanisation will happen in towns and intermediary cities, which have less capacity to deploy infrastructure than larger cities. In such a context, reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on “clean water and sanitation” in order to leave no-one behind, is a daunting task, especially when proper water governance conditions are not in place.

As set out in the OECD Principles on Water Governance, coping with current and future water challenges requires robust public policies targeting measurable objectives in predetermined timeframes at the appropriate scale and relying on a clear assignment of duties across responsible authorities and subject to regular monitoring and evaluation. Water governance can greatly contribute to the design and implementation of such policies, in a shared responsibility across national, regional, basin and local levels but also in co-operation with civil society, businesses and the broader range of stakeholders who have an important role to play to reap the economic, social and environmental benefits of water security.

While water resources management, like many other public policies, remains largely centralised in most African countries, cities usually hold key responsibilities for water services, and have an increasing role to play in driving water security now and in the future. Indeed, city governments hold policy prerogatives to secure the effective, efficient and inclusive provision of drinking water and sanitation as a local public service. In addition, mayors and city leaders, who are closer to citizens and place-based needs, could play a more significant role in addressing the mismatch between hydrological and administrative boundaries, through contributing to water resources management within integrated basin systems.

Building on a water governance survey across 36 African cities of all sizes, this report provides a regional overview of the allocation of roles and responsibilities for water management, the existence and implementation of institutional, policy and regulatory frameworks, as well as the critical governance gaps that need to be bridged in order to boost city government capacity to drive water security in the continent.

Key findings of the OECD Survey on Water Governance in African Cities include:

  • In a majority of African countries, water policy is driven at the national level by a line ministry often in charge of most regulatory functions, including tariff setting, quality standards definitions and monitoring, and consumer protection and engagement. A large number of African countries have also set up national water service providers, thus further amplifying the national leadership.

  • The last decade has seen an increasing leadership of city governments in water policy. In addition to national water policies, a significant share of surveyed cities have adopted dedicated local policies, investment plans and programmes for drinking water and sanitation (75%) and water resource management (42%). A vast majority (80%) of cities that have adopted such local policies report that they contribute to overcoming silos that often generate poor planning, lack of policy coherence and misalignment of incentives.

  • Where they exist, local water policies usually facilitate co-ordination with strategic urban development policies such as housing, land use and solid waste, and include social measures and targeted provisions towards vulnerable categories of the population in the form of a guaranteed minimum water volume for basic needs, a social connection fee and/or a social tariff.

  • In terms of evaluation and monitoring, half of the surveyed cities were hindered by partial and incomplete water-related data and information to guide policymaking and decision-making..

  • All surveyed cities consider the lack of funding as a major obstacle to good water governance, not only because of the limited use and uptake of economic instruments, such as pollution and abstraction charges, but also because between USD 9 billion and USD 14 billion would be needed per year throughout the African continent to achieve water security.

  • Less than half of the surveyed cities report the existence of clear procurement processes and budget transparency principles. Corruption remains a significant concern in many countries with Sub-Saharan Africa scoring the lowest in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index; although with strong variations across countries.

  • Finally, African cities report challenges in engaging with stakeholders in water-related matters due to a lack of funding, time and staff, along with the complexity of the issues at hand. In addition, city governments lack basic knowledge about the stakeholders they should engage with: more than three surveyed cities out of four have not carried out a stakeholder mapping for their water sector. Where such engagement practices exist, they rely on a variety of formal and informal mechanisms including meetings (56%), workshops (44%), citizen committees (42%) and river basin organisations (42%).


This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

Photo credits: Cover © gettyimages/Hibrida13.

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