Challenges for water supply and sanitation in urban Sub-Saharan Africa

Many cities in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have poor social services, including water and sanitation systems, health, housing planning, and education. Sanitary systems are characterised by traditional pit latrines connected to flush toilets and septic tanks. This is due to poor handling systems, limited convenience, attraction to flies, and spread of diseases such as dysentery and diarrhoea. This situation is influenced by a number of reasons, which will be explored in the following article.

Lack of financial resources

Most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have inadequate funding systems to address critical sanitation and hygiene challenges. Africa needs over US$16 billion annually to reach Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 by 2030. Most SSA countries invest little in sanitation and hygiene, lack ready-made investment projects and cost-effective restoration. Additionally, there are poor partnerships between sanitation leaders and investors that provide a way to build viable investment opportunities by raising the financial sector’s awareness of sanitation and hygiene realities. Also, there is no consolidated data on government spending on water, sanitation, and sanitation services in SSA.

Rapid population growth

SSA is regularly recognised as the fastest urbanising region in the world. Urban areas are currently home to 472 million people, and this figure is expected to double in the next 25 years. The fastest growing cities in SSA include Kinshasa, Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg-Pretoria, Nairobi, Luanda and Dar es Salaam. The rapid population growth in urban areas in SSA is also associated with the increase of problems such as economic crisis, inadequate water supply, and growing waste production. In addition, there is unreliable data on the proportion of urban residents that are living in difficult housing conditions without adequate provision of basic sanitation and hygiene services.

Socioeconomic disparities among urban dwellers

In several SSA countries, there are wide disparities in access to improved water, sanitation and hygiene services between the rich and poor in urban areas. Wealthier residents have greater access to improved sanitation and hygiene facilities than poor residents. In general, the more affluent residents are able to use flush toilets more than their poorer peers, who mainly use unimproved sanitation and hygiene facilities such as pit latrines without panels, or open defecation. Also, richer households tend to have ready access to soap and water in their homes in comparison to poorer households, which means that they are more able to wash their hands and maintain higher standards of hygiene.


Most urban areas in developing countries grow organically, and have no official town-planning strategy. This results in a number of issues, such as the development of slums and other impoverished urban areas in places that were designed to protect the environment, once again leading to increased sanitation and hygiene problems. This comes as a result of poor planning by cities and communities, as insufficient land is set aside for these developments. It is estimated that over 55% of the urban population live in slums and informal settlements in SSAs such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town (South Africa) with 400,000 inhabitants and Kibera in Nairobi (Kenya) with 700,000.

Lack of qualified and experienced staff

The lack of adequately trained personnel continues to disrupt the struggles of governments and the international community to achieve sustainable development goals for clean water and sanitation, particularly in the SSA region. There are insufficient skilled workers such as technicians, environmental and water engineers and scientists, and environmental health professionals with different skills and experiences.

Inadequate policies and strategies

Many SSA countries have inadequate, ineffective, and fragmented sanitation and hygiene policies and strategies. In some countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Senegal, a lot of money has been invested in improving water supply, but the sanitation and hygiene aspects have been abandoned. In addition, little attention is paid to informal settlements in urban areas when discussing provision for sanitation and hygiene policies. For example, urban informal settlements in Zimbabwe are considered illegal and are therefore not included in national policies.

Attitudes and behaviour of people

Water, sanitation and hygiene programmes must carefully consider human behaviour when trying to implement policy. Hygiene practices play a significant role in disrupting the chain of transmission of pathogens from one host to another. Having access to clean drinking water, using sanitary toilet facilities and following sufficient hygiene practices can drive the overall improvement of sanitation throughout a society. Communities may have toilets, but haven’t adopted the use of them on a regular basis due to a number of reasons. Other communities will have access to clean water, but don’t regularly wash their hands. This can lead to contamination of food, drink and other surfaces in the home. Therefore, it is recommended that SSA countries can achieve sustainable sanitation and hygiene if there are political commitments, increased community sanitation education and awareness, and collaboration between government, nongovernmental organizations, civil society and communities to address these issues the issues of hygiene.
Burak, G et al, (2017) Urbanization in Africa: challenges and opportunities for conservation, Environmental Research Letters, 9(1), pp. 1–9. doi:
Habitat for Humanity (2017) The World’s Largest Slums: Dharavi, Kibera, Khayelitsha and Neza, Habitat for Humanity. Great Britain. Available at: (Accessed: 8 May 2020).
Saghir, J, Santoro, J, (2018) Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa. Meeting Challenges by Bridging Stakeholders, Center for Strategic & International Studies, pp. 1–7. doi:
United Nations (2019) The sustainable development goals report 2019 Available at: (Accessed: 29 March 2021).

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