Poverty & Population: the Water Crisis

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a visual representation of a human being’s motivation patterns. All of the needs in the bottom of the pyramid must be met in order to be motivated by anything listed in the next level.maslow

[ Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Image]

If an individual does not have access to food, clean water, warmth and rest, they will never be able to reach ‘self-actualization’, which includes being a productive member of society, having a job, achieving goals, etc. Individuals who do not have access to clean water, food, and shelter will not be able to “move up the pyramid” and will most likely remain in perpetual poverty. This is the case for many individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa who do not have access to clean water.

On average, it takes three hours to find, retrieve, and transport water each day. The UN estimated that Sub-Saharan Africa loses 40 billion hours every year collecting water. This is time that could have put into schoolwork or into learning a trade. Not to mention the issues with the water itself; it is almost never actually clean, and many children develop (preventable) diseases and illnesses such as diarrhea. The jugs used, called jerry cans, can weigh between 40-70 pounds when full.

Unclean water/lack of water negatively affects agriculture. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that out of the 795 million undernourished people in the world (2016), 233 million of them were in Sub-Saharan Africa (1 in 4 people). Plants cannot be established into the ground without water, even plants that may be used to the arid climate.

These issues that stem from a lack of clean water cause many negative environmental impacts. One issue is that of population growth. The Sub-Saharan Africa region is currently in Stage 2 of the Demographic Transition Model, meaning their birth rates are incredibly high and their death rates, although high, are much lower than their birth rates. They are between 2.5-3.5% population growth, and the total population is expected to double within the next 25 years.  It is already apparent that population growth has put a strain on our limited resources, and many scientists are worried about relentless population growth in developing countries. With Sub-Saharan Africa’s continual population boom, the global environment could possibly be at risk from resource depletion as well. Birth rates of a region naturally lower when more of the population is able to have a job. Since many Sub-Saharan Africans are forced to spend their days (from a young age) fetching water, many school days are lost (443 million to be exact). This lack of education leaves many not able to secure a job (especially women), which keeps the birth rate trends high.


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[Figure 2: Demographic Transition Model]           [Figure 3: World Pop Growth %]

In conclusion, water  is a resource many of us, including myself, take for granted since we have always had access to it. Water is connected to all things and affects all things. This is no exception in Sub-Saharan Africa, and it is prevalent in the issue of population and also in lack of food, sanitation, and many other things. If an all encompassing issue, such as water, is able to be tackled, a whole new spectrum of possibility could be unlocked for this region.

Is there any beneficial way for the US to get behind issues like this? What can we do from an engineering standpoint to approach this problem? Are there any technologies available that could be implemented to alleviate this issue?


https://www.science.org.au/curious/earth-environment/population-environment http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/africa.shtml




14 thoughts on “Poverty & Population: the Water Crisis

  1. I do think this is an issue that needs to be resolved, but we need to focus on our own country and our own debt before we can start helping other countries. We are currently 20 trillion dollars in debt. The other thing that we have to look at is that Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water. We shouldn’t be helping others get access to clean water if our own citizens only have access to bottled water. Yes it is still better than the situation of Africa, but I don’t think we are at a place to help others at the moment. Once we are, we can then try to help fund the project.


  2. I think the key to understanding these water issues in Sub-Saharan Africa is to realize how much we falsely believe in the prevalence and cheapness of water in the United States. Water prices in this country are some of the lowest in the world due to federal subsidies propping up utilities, lack of infrastructure upkeep, and large political pressure to keep prices low. This has led to a huge waste of water in our society and lack of any conservation incentives because it so cheap. How can we understand the gravity of the water situation in Sub-Saharan Africa if we can’t respect our water here? I believe more recognition of the vitality of water in the US will help us be in a better position to understand and help with the problems over there.


  3. To address the first comment, the issue is not whether or not we should fund development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa – we already pour millions of dollars every year into the developing world. The issue is that a lot of this aid goes to propping up corrupt governments rather than actually solving problems. I thought this was a really interesting post – also worth pointing out that this really is almost a women’s rights issue in a lot of parts of the world. Women are principally the ones tasked with the tedious job of collecting water, and as you spoke of, this means they cannot fulfill their full economic or social potential. Birth rates also tend to be lower among educated women, so letting women get educations and careers has great potential to help with the population growth you spoke of as well. Also in case anyone is interested, there is this really great NGO called Charity Water doing work installing wells in Africa: https://www.charitywater.org/ Their operational costs are funded by private donors so all donations go directly towards providing clean drinking water. It’s a cool model for a charity.


  4. This was an interesting read and made me think about my usage of water. I don’t really think twice when drinking or using water because of the prevalence and cheapness of water here. I agree with Jason’s comment. It’s hard to wrap our mind in all the work and effort there is to get water in Sub-Saharan Africa because it comes easy to us.


  5. Is the water being fetched from polluted sources, or does the population not know how to treat the water? If it’s the latter, maybe educating the population on how to properly treat water can decrease illnesses and increase time spent at school/work.


  6. I think this is a clear example of how money is not the solution. People think that pouring money and GIVING to other countries that have these types of issues help when the solution is to build the economy. Business runs a country, and when we simply give resources like clean drinking water, we actually hurt the population. Let’s say, we give a country like the Republic of Congo a drinking water system with what we deem as proper plumbing, irrigation, and treatment. We equip the Republic of Congo with many drinking water facilities and say that we fixed the problem. Who is going to maintain this system? Who is going to work there with the proper training and expertise? Who is going to know how to use it and use it properly? What about the engineers and entrepreneurs in the Republic of Congo that were making a drinking water system already? This issue shows how Americans can be blinded by the westernized point of view. We have never once personally been there to live the day-to-day life of a sub-Saharan African, so we do not necessarily know the issues and how to solve them. We are trying to rate their well-being based on our own country’s standards. We should rate them based on their own history and their own culture, rather than just giving them what we think they need. If we treat these countries like our children and give them everything that we think they need, they will never develop, rather they will keep needing more and more. If we provide them with jobs and education that do not strip them of their culture, then they will be able to develop in areas that they see fit for their country.


  7. It’s sort of hard to imagine not having access to water like that. In the United States, it’s a law that restaurants must provide access to free water. We don’t have to think of gathering water as a chore. Gathering water for the sub-Saharan people takes more time than people spend commuting to work in the United States. How is a country really supposed to progress like that? I really liked the relation to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


  8. The lack of water for many countries has become a crisis. Without available clean drinking water it is impossible for people to survive. This is why this is an issue that needs to be addressed now. One way to go about this is to look into sterilization devices that could be cheaply mass produced and be purchased or donated to in need communities. One such device that already exits is called the SteriPen. It in’t necessarily extremely affordable but if a device like this could become affordable if could be huge for struggling countries.


  9. Africa is the most common destination for mission trips and various welfare expeditions but that is not nearly enough to help the overwhelming amount of people living in poverty. Unfortunately, many government officials in these countries take full advantage of financial assistance given to them by the US and other countries, which ultimately keeps the general public in poverty. I believe the first step for these countries to escape poverty is ending the government corruption and ensure that all aid is being used as it is suppose to, then moving forward from there.


  10. Africa, like the Middle East and China, have a history of mismanaging their limited water usages. Lake Victoria is heavily polluted, the Nile River is increasingly being drained beyond any environmentally permissible standards, and increasing groundwater withdrawals are draining aquifers across the country. If Africa, along with the United States’s role in the matter, is serious about addressing their water needs, there needs to be a huge upgrade to their existing water infrastructure. The nations surrounding Lake Victoria, for example, lack basic Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure leaving raw sewage and stormwater flowing into that water resource everyday. Water is one of those resources that if not properly respected and valued can never be brought to the masses in developing nations.

    If anyone loves this issue, I recommend reading “The Big Thirst” by Charles Fishman. Just finished it, and loved every page!


  11. The water crisis in SSA is a major crisis among the world today. You are right, many of us take having access to clean water for granted. It is important to address these issues to these people, where in this country, we view having access to clean water as a basic human right. There are many initiatives and projects out there to assist countries in that region, but the region will still need a lot more help to be able to support their growing population


  12. I wish I could post my pictures of water systems here from Tanzania! Only 20% of the rural area I was living in was connected to the city water system – the rest used rain water systems, walked to a spicket, or walked to creek/rivers with buckets to get water. There was no running water at the public high school so the kids would walk down to the valley every morning and get water with buckets (which was impressive because it was a very steep trek). They would wash their dishes in ways that used less water and did not drink water too often. I never drank the water without boiling it first although I did shower in it and sometimes brush my teeth with it (which was probably not a good idea because sometimes it would burn my eyes….)

    As far as waters importance in development… its true, it does take a lot of their time (especially the women) to get the water and then boil it, and I am no expert in this, but after living there, it did not seem like water was the most important part of development but rather just a piece of the bigger picture. Other important pieces of the picture I think were waste management because it polluted the water system, the time it takes to do other household things (like laundry, cooking, farming – its just a time intensive society in general), improving the poor education system, and an increase of diversity in economic opportunities – (again I am no expert in development), but I think it all seems to move up together at the same time!


  13. I feel as if the issue is more complex such as a lack of infrastructure and availability of energy in these rural areas. In order to harvest clean water it requires a certain amount of energy, which these rural areas do not have. In your article you referenced how a lack of clean water leads to population growth. I’m not sure how there is a correlation between clean water and population growth.


  14. From a development perspective, this is a huge issue. Consider also the social impacts lack of access to clean water has- who carries most of the burden? As it turns out, it is largely women and children. Disproportionately, the lack of water inhibits empowerment of women. Issues of sanitation also can stop young girls from going to school. In discussing the Malthusian perspective of population growth, the best way to slow that growth is by reducing child mortality. (People have more children when they know more children are likely to die: it is a matter of insurance. This is the poverty trap.) And historically, improved educayion for females has reduced the birth rate.


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