African Governments Failing in Provision of Water and Sanitation, Majority of Citizens Say (Afrobarometer)

More than half of Africans say their governments are failing them when it comes to one of their top priorities – the provision of clean water and sanitation services, a new Afrobarometer analysis shows.
press release

Accra, Ghana — More than half of Africans say their governments are failing them when it comes to one of their top priorities - the provision of clean water and sanitation services, a new Afrobarometer analysis shows. Half of survey respondents say they went without enough clean water for home use during the previous year - a particular concern considering the importance of proper hygiene for preventing the spread of coronavirus and other infectious diseases.

These findings from national surveys in 34 African countries, released in advance of World Water Day (March 22), show that there has been little progress in recent years toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 6, "Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all."

While experiences vary widely across countries, on average more than half of Africans have to leave their compounds to access water, and only one-fourth have access to sewage infrastructure. Rural residents continue to suffer major disadvantages in access to water and sanitation.

One in five Africans who tried to obtain utility services from government during the previous year report they had to pay a bribe. In 20 out of 34 countries, majorities say their government is doing a poor job of providing water and sanitation services.

Key findings:

  • On average across 34 African countries, about half (49%) of citizens went without enough clean water for home use during the year preceding the survey, including 38% who suffered this form of lived poverty "several times," "many times," or "always." Repeated shortages of clean water (at least "several times") decreased slightly between surveys in 2011/2013 (39%) and 2014/2015 (35%) but increased again by 2016/2018, wiping out the earlier gains.
  • More than three-fourths of Gabonese (77%) and Guineans (76%) experienced a shortage of clean water, compared to fewer than one in four respondents in Mauritius (11%), Ghana (22%), and Morocco (23%).
  • The situation has worsened significantly over the past six years in 12 of 31 countries surveyed throughout the period, with the most severe declines recorded in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso, where the proportion of citizens who "never" went without enough clean water shrank by 17, 12, and 10 percentage points, respectively. Improvements were registered in eight countries, led by Guinea (+17 points), Tunisia (12 points), and Malawi (11 points).
  • While SDG6 targets call for "universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all" by 2030, only a slim majority (54%) of Africans live in areas served by a piped-water system. This ranges from just 8% of Liberians to more than nine out of 10 Tunisians (91%), São Toméans (91%), and Mauritians (100%).
  • Only a quarter (26%) of Africans live in zones with sewage systems, an enormous challenge for achieving the SDG6 targets of providing access to "adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all" and ending open defecation. Liberia (5%) is joined by Tanzania (6%), the Gambia (7%), and Malawi (8%) at the low end, while only Tunisia (75%) and Morocco (69%) boast sewerage access for more than two-thirds of their populations.
  • Rural residents and poor citizens are far less likely than their urban and better-off counterparts to benefit from water and sanitation infrastructure.
  • On average across 34 countries, neither water nor sanitation infrastructure appears to reaching larger proportions of the population than in Afrobarometer's 2011/2013 surveys.
  • More than half (52%) of Africans have to go outside their compound for clean water. This is true for more than eight out of 10 citizens in Uganda (87%), Niger (84%), Malawi (82%), and Tanzania (81%). A water source inside the home or compound is enjoyed by just three out of 10 rural residents (31%) and citizens experiencing high lived poverty (28%).
  • Almost three-fourths (72%) of respondents report having a toilet or latrine inside their home or compound, while 22% have to go outside the compound and 7% say they have no access to a toilet or latrine.
  • In seven countries, a majority of the population have no toilet or latrine in their home or compound: Ghana (58%), Niger (57%), Uganda (56%), Benin (56%), Malawi (55%), Liberia (55%), and Namibia (54%).
  • In five countries, more than one in five citizens say they have no access to a toilet or latrine at all: Benin (26%), Niger (26%), Burkina Faso (23%), Namibia (21%), and São Tomé and Príncipe (21%).
  • While the continental average shows no improvement since the 2011/2013 surveys, five countries registered significant gains in the proportion of citizens with toilets/latrines in their homes or compounds (Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, eSwatini, and Ghana).
  • Among respondents who tried to obtain water, sanitation, or electricity services from the government during the year preceding the survey, almost two-thirds (63%) say it was "difficult" or "very difficult" to get the services they needed. The proportions complaining of difficulty range from four in 10 in Tanzania and Mauritius (both 40%) to more than three-fourths in Madagascar (79%) and Gabon (78%). Across 33 countries surveyed in both 2014/2015 and 2016/2018, the share of respondents reporting it was easy to obtain these services declined from 44% to 36%.
  • On average, one in five respondents (20%) who tried to obtain utility services during the previous year say they had to pay a bribe or do a favour to get the needed services. Almost half (48%) of Liberians say they had to pay a bribe, followed by 39% of Cameroonians, while fewer than one in 20 report this experience in Mauritius (3%) and Botswana (4%).
  • On average across 34 countries, water/sanitation ties with infrastructure/transport/roads for third place among the most important national problems that Africans want their governments to address, trailing only unemployment and health. Six out of 10 Guineans (60%) cite water/sanitation among their three most important problems, followed by 47% of Tanzanians and 44% of Burkinabè. Countries where the share of respondents who prioritize water/sanitation as an urgent national problem increased the most are Guinea, Tanzania, Kenya, and Côte d'Ivoire.
  • When we map citizens' "most important problems" onto the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG6 ("clean water and sanitation") is the highest-priority goal for Guineans, the second-highest priority in Tanzania and Benin, and the third-highest in eight other countries. Water/sanitation is an especially high priority in poor countries.
  • Rural residents, less-educated citizens, and poor respondents are far more likely to prioritize water and sanitation than their urban, more-educated, and better-off counterparts.
  • Given these manifold concerns, it's no surprise that a majority (54%) of Africans say their government is doing "fairly badly" or "very badly" at providing water and sanitation services, although this reflects a modest improvement since 2011/2013 (from 56% to 53% across 31 countries surveyed in all of the past three rounds). Gabonese (84%) and Guineans (82%) are most critical. Only nine countries register majority approval of government performance on water/sanitation, led by eSwatini (65%) and Botswana (63%).
  • The greatest improvements in citizen assessments of government performance on water and sanitation occurred in Liberia, Lesotho, eSwatini, Senegal, Tunisia, and Tanzania (Figure 21), while Malawi, Guinea, South Africa, Sudan, and Sierra Leone registered the greatest declines.
  • Rural residents' disadvantage in water and sanitation services extends to all aspects of access and supply except for the likelihood of having to pay a bribe.

Survey background

Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan survey research network that provides reliable data on African experiences and evaluations of democracy, governance, and quality of life. Seven rounds of surveys have been completed in up to 38 countries since 1999.

Afrobarometer conducts face-to-face interviews in the language of the respondent's choice with nationally representative samples. Sample sizes of 1,200 or 2,400 yield country-level results with a margin of sampling error of +/-3 or 2 percentage points, respectively, at a 95% confidence level.

Round 7 interviews with 45,823 citizens in 34 countries represent the views of more than three-fourths of Africans.

Interested readers may follow releases, including Pan-Africa Profiles series of cross-country analyses, at #VoicesAfrica and www.afrobarometer.org .

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