Africa’s infrastructure challenges hurts the most vulnerable

Photo: Tracey Adams/ANA Pictures

As the greatest flooding tragedy continues to brutalize Sierra Leone, what has been even more heartbreaking is that half of the deaths could have been avoided if the country had just half the infrastructure that a developing country should have. When emergency vehicles cannot reach some parts of the city because there are no roads or bridges, when even the people that are still alive but trapped under rubbles must yield to death because help is trapped on the other side of the floods, then as Africans we are all damned. As governments, we must accelerate our infrastructure programmes to protect the most vulnerable in society.

Nearly 400 people are confirmed dead and at least 600 are still missing following the Freetown mudslide and flooding that devastated the Sierra Leone’s capital. Flooding is not unusual in Sierra Leone, where unsafe housing in makeshift settlements can be swept away by heavy rains. The biggest challenge in the rescue missions which have come from all over the world has been the lack of infrastructure in the heavily affected communities. Where there are no proper roads and bridges leading to communities, how will help be delivered. Lack of infrastructure has proven to be as deadly as the floods and mudslides themselves. The rains often hit areas in and around Freetown, an overcrowded coastal city of more than one million people.
This is not only unique to Sierra Leone. On 06 June 2017 The South African Weather Service issued a severe weather warning for flash flooding, hail, and gale force winds in the Western Cape. Rainfall of up to 50mm within 24 hours were expected in certain areas. Informal settlements, such as Masiphumelele, which is in a wetland, [and therefore] very vulnerable for flooding and mudslides and areas such as Gugulethu and Khayelitsha are also in wetlands, were identified as priorities.

According to a recent Ernest & Young report, Africa’s largest infrastructure deficits are found in ‘Power’. Research from The World Bank Group (WBG) indicates that 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa (with a combined population of 800 million) generate roughly the same amount of power as Spain (with a population of 45 million). With respect to roads, only one-third of Africans living in rural areas are within two kilometers of an all-season road, compared with two-thirds of the population in other developing regions.
These catalysts for growth can also include access to water, as it remains one of the biggest challenges facing Africa growth trajectory, as far back as 2012, a World Bank Report entitled “Future of Water in African Cities” cited, “Since the late 90’s urban access to improved water supply in Sub-Saharan Africa has expanded, albeit slowly. Efforts to increase access to improved water supply were not enough to cope with population growth. As a consequence, the number of urban dwellers that gained access to unimproved sources of drinking water such as wells, boreholes and vendors increased. Reliance on surface water – such as rivers, dams, lakes, ponds, streams, canals, irrigation channels– declined in both relative and absolute terms”.
This clearly demonstrates that water resources, road infrastructure and power utilities projects remain core to Africa’s plan of the future. 
Beside the priorities of resolving conflict and bringing peace and stability, second to that is infrastructure because without that there can be no development and as Sierra Leon has shown, there can be no life either.
The cost of addressing Africa’s infrastructure deficit is estimated to be approximately US$90b every year for the next decade.
Research conducted by Ernest & Young suggests that by effectively strengthening the transport, power, health, education, water and sewage sectors, and improving quality of access for all will significantly increase economic capacity as well as give countries wider access to their large natural resource deposits, enabling more efficient exports. 
In countries like Tanzania, trains are unable to carry heavy goods due to abandoned older trains together with disused wagons. Travellers can look out of the window to see the abandoned wreckage of older trains by the side of the track. Imagine what the effects of such unreliable but critical public transport has on the regional economy and on people’s lives. 
The Tazara, (is a railroad in East Africa linking the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania with the town of Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia’s Central Province) one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest post-independence infrastructure projects, is indicative of the effects of transportation issues across the continent. Railway systems are sparse and when they do exist, it is of poor quality. Approximately 60 per cent of Africans live within two kilometres of an all-season road. In Kenya, it is only 32 per cent of people, in Angola 31 per cent, in Tanzania 18 per cent, and in Ethiopia it is as low as 10.5 per cent. In much the same way as lack of internet connectivity limits your access to the world, so to does the lack of transport infrastructure.
The developing world sees more than 5-million people migrate to urban areas, where jobs, schools, and opportunities of all kinds are often easier to find. But when people migrate, the need for basic services such as water, power and transport increases. 

Nedbank senior economist Nicola Weimar notes that the continued dips in the South African economy can largely be attributed to persistent and significant infrastructure constraints such as the lack of sufficient and reliable power supply to fuel higher levels of growth. While there is an urgent need to address the issue of energy supply in South Africa, a lack of capacity in a number of other forms of economic infrastructure, from insufficient road, rail, port, communications and other logistical infrastructure, have also proven hugely challenging for the economy.
Water, roads and power are critical ingredients to the success of Africa’s economic game plan. In SA, we have accepted that without a major state investments into these sectors of the economy, economic growth will remain sluggish and prevent private sector investment into the economy. Our capital spend on roads, rails, dams and other infrastructure has amounted to billions of rands over the past decade and will continue to increase in the future. 

The reality is that the cost of poor infrastructure does not only hurt the economy but has devastating impacts on the lives of the most vulnerable. 
 Nomvula Mokonyane is the Minister of Water & Sanitation and ANC NEC member