Africa: Water Access May Be More Important Than Electricity for Sub-Saharan Africa


For nearly two decades, the United States has strongly pushed for the electrification of rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa to raise the standard of living. It has carried out these goals via the USAID's Power Africa and the World Bank, and under the UN Sustainable Development Goal on Energy (SDG7).

And yet, it remains unclear whether electrification can actually improve living standards in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa.

As researchers, we have previously documented the positive effects of electrification schemes. Still, we think that money earmarked for rural electrification in sub-Saharan Africa might be better spent elsewhere.

Providing people with clean drinking water and sanitation infrastructure may do more to improve living standards than providing them with electricity.

In addition, water and sanitation provisions are generally less expensive than rural electrification. They could improve many more lives at the same cost.

Power versus water

The electrification of low-density rural areas in Nicaragua, Guatemala and KwaZulu-Natal has increased the number of working women. Rural electrification substantially increased household living standards in India

However, South Asian rural electrification schemes often did not reach the poor. Similarly, in Ghana and Rwanda, economic opportunities were not obviously increased. In Ghana, electricity remains prohibitively expensive for newly connected rural households. In Rwanda, grid electrification did not result in significant new income generation in rural areas.

While there is some potential for off-grid solar energy to improve agricultural productivity in Africa, very small-scale solar provisions are unlikely to do so.

Solar provisions may be commercially viable, but they are not necessarily the most cost-effective source of clean energy. A home installation in sub-Saharan Africa may cost US$500-1,000, far above what most rural households can pay.

Dirty drinking water

Electrification of rural areas may not be the most cost-effective way of improving health and wellbeing.

In sub-Saharan Africa, two out of three people lack access to electricity, but 40 per cent do not have clean drinking water and 70 per cent lack adequate sanitation.

The burden of waterborne childhood diseases is great. One in nine children under age five dies every year in sub-Saharan Africa. Diarrhea from dirty drinking water is the second major cause of death, after malaria.

Drilling wells, disinfecting water and providing sealed sewerage services improve population health remarkably. A reduction in the incidence of childhood diarrhea lowers the likelihood of childhood stunting (impaired growth and development), being underweight and susceptibility to other disease.

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