Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)

Clearly, what we read from the Gospel according to John, is the need of Jesus to be given water, but instead, verse 29 indicates, “A jar of vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.” This was an issue of water justice.

Major questions that need to be raised today are:  In what way do African states and regimes take seriously the issue of providing safe water to their populaces? How much is actually budgeted for water in Africa?

As a basic need for any human being and all living things, water is a substance that no person should be deprived of. The normative content on human rights in Africa is a topic that briefly examines accessibility, affordability, acceptability, safety and quality of water in Africa.

Water justice in Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of water-stressed countries on the planet where an estimated 800 million people live. Of these people, some 300 million live in a water-stressed environment. According to findings presented at the 2012 Conference on "Water Scarcity in Africa: Issues and Challenges", it is estimated that by 2030, 75 million to 250 million people in Africa will be living in areas of high water stress. This will likely displace anywhere between 24 million and 700 million people as conditions become increasingly unliveable. As African states continue to design development programmes, it is essential that they put water first in their development budgets. So far, investment in water is still not sufficient. If this is not done as a matter of urgency, we shall certainly experience a situation of water refugees and displacement in Africa. Water justice should also be enshrined in constitutions, following the example of Bolivia.

Water Security means food security

Like food security, we should also speak about water security to ensure that all people in Africa have access to clean and safe water. Since water is part of the public domain, African governments should subsidize it to ensure its affordability to all people.

As I write this article, many cattle have died due to water scarcity in grazing zones in my country while plants are drying up, threatening food security. So, water first should be the mantra, because it is the backbone of other sectors such as agriculture and industries. Without water, life dies.

The Human Development Report finds that human use of water is mainly allocated to irrigation and agriculture. In developing areas, such as those within Africa, agriculture accounts for more than 80 per cent of water consumption. This is due to the fact that it takes about 3,500 litres of water to produce enough food for the daily minimum of 3,000 calories. Food production for a typical family of four takes a daily amount of water equivalent to that need to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Because the majority of people in Africa remain dependent on an agricultural lifestyle with 80 to 90 percent of all rural families reliant on producing their own food, water scarcity translates to a loss of food security. With less than a third of the continent's potential using irrigation, most rural African communities are not tapping into their irrigation potential. According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa and New Partnership for Africa's Development, "irrigation is key to achieving increased agricultural production that is important for economic development and for attaining food security". So, water security means food security in Africa. We have many cases in Africa, including my country with many rivers and lakes that are not exploited for irrigation. A lack of technology is a challenging issue in Africa.

Water security means health security in Africa

Unsafe water in Africa is the source of waterborne diseases.

Globally, 2.2 million people die each year from diarrhoea-related disease, and at any given time fifty percent of all hospital beds in the world are occupied by patients suffering from water-related diseases. Infants and children are especially susceptible to these diseases because of their young immune systems, which exacerbate infant mortality rates in many regions of Africa. Water scarcity has a big impact on hygiene.

When infected with waterborne diseases, those living in African communities suffering from water scarcity cannot contribute to the community's productivity and development due to a simple lack of strength. Additionally, individual, community, and governmental economic resources are sapped by the cost of medicine to treat waterborne diseases, taking away from resources that might potentially have been allocated in support of food supplies or school fees. Also, in terms of governmental funding, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) estimates that in Sub-Saharan Africa, treatment of diarrhoea due to water contamination consumes 12 per cent of countries' health budgets. In Africa, we have abundant waterborne diseases and hence the need to invest heavily in clean and safe water for the people.

Water justice means gender justice

African women are the backbone when it comes to taking care of their families with water and food. Many women in rural areas walk long distances in search of water, facing many dangers, including rape and attack by wild animals. In urban areas women find it difficult to pay for water, especially during spells of drought when water vendors raise water prices sky high. At the time of writing, the Guardian newspaper in Tanzania ran an article headlined, “Dry taps worsen life in Kenya’s urban slums.” One person in  a family is quoted saying,  “My family is big and I am forced to spend about 3 dollars on water….We require more than ten jerry cans daily to meet domestic needs like cooking, washing, clothes and flushing the toilets,” said Motoko. “Sourcing water from vendors has been financially draining at a time I am expected to pay school fees for my children,” the interviewee said. In Nairobi there is currently water rationing. Poor planning coupled with a breakdown of law and order has constrained efforts to connect residents of the Korogocho slums with piped water. In many parts of Africa, water justice can be one of the solutions for gender injustice.

What can the churches do in Africa?

African churches can address the normative content of the right to water at two levels: namely at the advocacy level, and at the programmatic level:


Advocacy level

Based on the biblical mandate, urge African parliamentarians and governments to ensure that water justice is enshrined in their constitutions.

Encourage governments to prioritize water in their national development plans and to monitor government budgets on water supply and preservation.

Start a long term campaign on water security for all in Africa.

Encourage governments to provide water rights to communities so as to ensure their control for water safety and protection.


Programmatic level

Create programmes with communities on clean and safe water provision and sanitation.

Work with communities in protecting water sources on the one hand and encouraging grazers to practice sustainable grazing.

Along with partners, initiate irrigation schemes in rural areas that include rain water-harvesting, drilling shallow wells and the use of windmill energy-powered pumps.

For urban areas, work out programmes for water and sanitation, particularly in the slums.