How the Water Crisis Contributes to Poverty in Some African Countries

In Ghana, Malawi and Kenya, millions of people are living without access to clean, safe water — and many more millions of people are living in poverty.

Various factors contribute to poverty in certain African countries, and the root causes vary from country to country, but political conditions, climate conditions, infrastructure challenges, and lack of access to necessities such as clean water are common contributors.

By learning more about water scarcity and its contribution to poverty, we can better address the issues at hand and work together to provide lasting solutions.

The Correlation Between Poverty and Water Scarcity

When a person lacks access to the essential resources for life — food, water, safe shelter, etc. — his or her energy and time become consumed with the desperate hunt for those resources. By necessity, the drive to survive begins to dictate every hour, edging out any thoughts or plans beyond making it through the day.

Such is the case for families around the world who lack access to clean, safe water. Often, they leave their homes before dawn and walk many miles in the dark to the nearest borehole, dam or trickling stream, whether this water is clean or not. Some even sleep at these distant sources, leaving themselves vulnerable to wild animals and human predators in order to be the first in line for water in the morning.

This risk is an unavoidable trade-off between security and precious time. Once the queue starts forming, it could take hours for a family to collect the water they need for the day. In the dry season, many villagers must dig into dry riverbeds and wait a long time for enough muddy liquid to well up from the ground. Even if they can make it to a nearby well, such boreholes are often too shallow and improperly cased, unable to keep out contaminants. Families at the end of the line end up pumping the dirty brown dregs from the bottom of the well into their buckets.

Needless to say, this water is often unsafe for human consumption. Left without other options, families drink water polluted by parasites, bacteria, chemical runoff, animal waste and other debris. Even human waste sometimes makes its way into the water supply as a result of open defecation or old, improperly constructed latrines. Again, families make a costly exchange — trading their health to quench their thirst.

In Kenya, villagers dig a deep hole in the dry, dusty earth and wait to fill their jerrycans with groundwater.

The Cost of Clean Water

Families pay a great price to drink unsafe water. They pay in time, safety and health. They also pay literally, shelling out what little money they have to purchase water off carts and trucks that sometimes pass through the area — or to get medicine for waterborne diseases when polluted sources take their toll.

Even if they do not buy water, many families still suffer frequent financial hits because they must rely on rain-fed agriculture in order to feed their children and earn a small income. This is often one of the only career options available for families in rural villages, but it is a particularly challenging venture in regions characterized by extended drought and periodic flooding. Inclement weather has destroyed many crops in countries like Ghana and Malawi, ruining families’ hopes for a decent harvest. In addition, villagers spend countless hours gathering water, losing valuable time that they could be spending on their farms, with their families, in the classroom, at church, or pursuing other professional pathways that could improve the outlook of their lives.

In many ways, providing clean water for communities is the first step toward helping them achieve self-sufficiency. Without safe water, their physical strength, finances and hope for the future often evaporate — a problem that we are working to address in Ghana, Malawi and Kenya.


The Water Crisis in Ghana

According to the CIA World Factbook, about one-fifth of Ghana’s rural population lacks access to clean water, and nearly half of the rural population does not have sanitary bathroom facilities. In the Upper West Region, the percentage of people living without safe water and sanitation runs significantly higher — as does the incidence of poverty. About one-quarter of Ghana’s entire population lives below the national poverty line, but in most districts of the Upper West Region, the poverty rate ranges between 71.4% and 92.4% (Ghana Mapping Report, 2015).

The correlation between significant water poverty and significant economic poverty cannot be overlooked. The Upper West Region is the hottest, driest part of the country. It is also the part of the country where the highest number of families are struggling to make ends meet.

Most of the region’s people rely on agriculture for at least a portion of their income, but because the dry season lasts for half the year (from mid-November until April), many inhabitants must leave home to work in southern Ghana for part of the year. The harsh climate conditions in the northwest are further exacerbated by Harmattan, a dry, dusty wind that parches the land during dry season.

In order to collect water, women in Norong, Ghana, lose valuable time for working, studying, praying and other important activities.

The Water Crisis in Malawi

About 4 million people are battling water scarcity in Malawi as well. With 21,196,629 people, Malawi has the sixth-fastest-growing population in the world — but the country itself is about 1.2 times smaller than the state of Florida. The high population density puts great strain on the nation’s land and water resources, and many people in hard-to-reach regions are left without accessible sources of potable water.

High population density also contributes to Malawi’s pollution problem. Chemical runoff from farms, sewage from inadequate sanitation, and industrial waste are all byproducts of human activity that have adversely affected the water supply. Without deep borehole wells or piped, treated water, many poor families risk contracting bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, typhoid fever, bilharzia and other painful illnesses.

Malawi’s water scarcity has devastating economic repercussions as well. The country’s economy depends heavily on rain-fed farming, and about 80% of the workforce is employed in agriculture (CIA World Factbook). The dry season typically endures from May until October, but even in the rainier months, precipitation can be erratic. Long droughts followed by torrential downpours and destructive floods often wash away any hope of a promising harvest.

The Water Crisis in Kenya

The CIA World Factbook shows that nearly one-third of all Kenyans do not have access to safe, clean water. Women and children in remote villages often trek long miles in the blazing heat to collect heavy containers of water, often collecting from contaminated canals or digging deep holes into dry riverbeds.

As you can imagine, this water is often contaminated by bacteria and parasites, and many of Kenya’s water sources have also been heavily polluted by industrial waste and the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers. The country is considered at high risk for infectious waterborne diseases, including bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, bilharzia and typhoid fever. Contaminated canals and ponds also serve as a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes, putting families at risk for malaria and dengue fever. In 2016, the World Bank reported that about 41% of Kenyan children under 5 were anemic — a condition worsened by frequent bouts of illness that sap their developing bodies of vital nutrients.

As in Ghana and Malawi, water scarcity inflicts many economic hardships in Kenya as well. Agriculture makes up more than one-third of the country’s GDP, and about 75% of the people rely on farming to provide at least part of their income. Long seasons of drought, often followed by torrential rains and flash flooding, have destroyed many harvests, causing great economic loss and deepening the national poverty problem. According to the World Bank, 36% of Kenyans live on less than $1.90 a day.

Help Fight the African Water Crisis

We believe God has called his global Church to unite in addressing these issues and relieving the burden on communities in African countries that need safe water. By partnering with Catholic leaders in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, Cross Catholic Outreach is working to provide clean water and improved sanitation for many thousands of suffering men, women and children. We are also working to facilitate important training workshops that will empower entire villages to maintain their new wells, protect their water supplies, improve public health, and step into an era of greater self-sufficiency.

In order to bring this work to fruition, all we need is you!

Compassionate individuals and parishes throughout the U.S. can play a critical role in alleviating the water crisis. Your prayers and generous giving have the power to free families from the prison of thirst and poverty, unlocking their potential and granting them access to the hope-filled future that God has planned for them.

Visit any of the links below to discover what we’re doing to empower Catholic leaders in Ghana, Malawi and Kenya, and take action to fuel lifesaving water relief missions throughout Africa!

Donations from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2024, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.