Access to potable drinking water is vital to both life and to economic progress in the developing world. The United Nations identified halving the number of people without access to drinking water by 2015 as one of its objectives in the Millennium Development Goals. According to a report by the WHO and UNICEF, 89% of the world’s population has access to improved drinking water, that is water that is likely to be protected from contamination, and that figure is expected to rise to 92% by 2015. In March 2012, then UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon announced the world had met this Millennium Development Goal ahead of schedule.
While the overall global picture is encouraging, when assessed by region, sub-Saharan Africa lags far behind other developing regions such as Asia and Latin America. Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced economic progress over the last decade and seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are located in the region. However, despite this impressive growth, only 61% of people have access to improved water supply sources in the region.
Governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector have taken note that sub-Saharan Africa is behind the rest of the world. They recognize that demand for potable water will only increase as the region experiences poverty alleviation and explosive population growth over the coming decades.
This demand is already apparent to water treatment companies with operations across sub-Saharan Africa. French multinational Veolia Water Solutions has seen increased demand for the municipal side of its business, whereas in the past industrial water treatment was the focus of its sub-Saharan operations. According to Hein Van Niekerk, general manager for chemicals and consumables of Veolia: “There is now a strong emphasis on the municipal market, where service delivery has been lacking across sub-Saharan Africa. Governments are under great pressure and funding is finding its way to these countries.”
In order for economic development to continue in the region, access to scarce water resources must be properly expanded through astute government policy and the involvement of an active private sector that is willing and able to take on the challenges associated with doing business in Africa. “Water is an enabler or inhibitor for industry in what is effectively a semi-arid region,” says Fred Platt, CEO of Johannesburg-based Accéntuate.
One of Accéntuate’s business units, Safic, recently signed a joint venture agreement with Indian water treatment company Ion Exchange, showing the company sees future opportunities in the municipal water business. Platt believes Ion Exchange India is an ideal partner for his company due to their experience: “The challenges we face in South Africa and on the rest of the continent are some of the same challenges India has effectively addressed. Ion Exchange is accustomed to dealing with rural communities, polluted water and infrastructure difficulties and has vast resources available to deploy in Africa.”
Switzerland-based Clariant recently increased its clout in water treatment on the African continent due to its acquisition of Süd-Chemie in 2011, thereby gaining access to a water treatment company already present in 38 countries on the African continent.
Clariant’s full-scale portable drinking water plant, known as Hydromax, can be used in a variety of applications in areas where water is at its scarcest. Hydromax has been used in a variety of instances including disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and supplying remote mine sites with potable water. In Africa, the largest containerized units of Hydromax have the capability to provide entire rural villages with day-to-day drinking water. Given the water shortages throughout the continent products like Hydromax have huge potential markets.
Both increasingly populated urban areas and hard to reach rural areas will experience demand over the coming decades. With the population of sub-Saharan Africa expected to almost double from 870 million to 1.5 billion by 2050, adequately supplying the region’s demand for potable water remain urgent. For water treatment companies, sub-Saharan Africa represents an enormous growth opportunity that could help fuel their bottom lines as well as the economic development of a region for decades to come.