Ensuring Water Quality in Africa

Cicely Enright

In Africa, where access to clean water is an urgent issue, ASTM standards have taken root.

Water is essential for life, and "access to safe water is a fundamental human and, therefore, a basic human right." With this statement and his address on World Water Day in 2001, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan put a spotlight on what continues to be a global problem: clean water.

This year completes the UN "Water for Life" international decade for action, but water is staying at the top of its agenda.

In Africa, clean water is in limited supply. One-third of the continent's population lacks access to clean water, according to Food and Water Watch.

And in Africa, as elsewhere, ASTM International standards help demonstrate whether water is safe.

Water and Africa

Global estimates indicate that between 700 million and one billion people lack access to clean water. According to water.org, 358 million of these people live in Africa.

In Africa, water gatherers tend to be women and children, and they often must walk distances to collect water. An average walk is 6 kilometers (a bit more than three and a half miles). The time to get the water adds up too, to billions of hours a year. The United Nations estimates that in Sub-Saharan Africa, where rainfall is scarce, people use 40 billion hours a year to gather water. Plus, there's the weight - the jerry (fuel) cans that people use to carry water can weigh over 20 kg (40 lbs.) when full.

Water sources may be unprotected, unclean or inconsistent. When polluted or contaminated with human waste or pesticides, water can cause cholera, typhoid or other diseases.

Thabisa Mbnungwana, senior manager of international relations and strategic partnerships at the South African Bureau of Standards, an ASTM memorandum of understanding partner for more than 10 years, puts it this way: "South Africa regards water as a precious natural resource which is rapidly being depleted. Efficient use is essential for long-term sustainability."

In fact, the water crisis is at the top of the World Economic Forum's Global Risks 2015. Risks such as extreme weather and drought, disease and climate change are all tied to water management and access. Water-stressed areas affect about one-third of the world's population, and as the forum notes, "Water connects, it doesn't separate - what manifests itself as a regional or local crisis quickly becomes a global problem. Water crises affect economies of all sizes."


Many groups are working to change the water situation in Africa, and progress is being made. An Internet search turns up numerous organizations dedicated to providing clean water in Africa or in developing countries globally.

A church collects change until there is enough to build a well in Malawi. Profits from the sale of local coffee fund water projects in Uganda. Donated water filtration straws ensure clean drinking water for up to a year. A sustainable filter factory uses local materials to effectively purify water in South Africa.

The United Nations has focused on water as one of its Millennium Development Goals, an effort born in 2000 with the UN Millennium Declaration. The water-related goal: "Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation."

As a result, the UN reports that worldwide, "1.9 billion people have gained access to piped drinking water since 1990." Also, 91 percent of the global population now uses an improved drinking water source. According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, in Sub-Saharan Africa, these gains mean an additional 47,000 people every day for 25 years, on average, now have access. (Lack of progress on sanitation might undermine these gains; one in three people still do not have sanitation facilities.)

The ASTM Standards Connection

ASTM has been working with African national standards bodies through its MOU program. Twenty-seven African standards bodies have signed MOUs with ASTM. Collectively, these standards groups have consulted, referenced or adopted dozens of ASTM standards from Committee D19 on Water.

"These standards facilitate sustainable water management helping to alleviate water scarcity and achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals," says George B. Crentsil, Ph.D., executive director of the Ghana Standards Authority, an ASTM memorandum of understanding partner since 2007. "Ghana, as with many developing countries, is faced with the challenge of ensuring that its citizenry has access to potable quality water."

Committee D19 oversees more than 350 standards, including methods for sampling and analyzing water, waterborne materials and wastes. Jay C. Gandhi, Ph.D., regulatory affairs manager for Metrohm USA, and an ASTM member since 2003, says that the committee's standards cover diverse tests for water. He notes that D19 methods, for example, determine the presence of common pathogens like E. coli, chemicals like cyanide that pollute mining wastewater, and chloride, which occurs when seawater encroaches on fresh water.

"Not only do the standards help enhance the quality of life, but if microbes or organic contamination exists, these standards show that," Gandhi says.

Charles Gachahi of the Kenya Bureau of Standards agrees. He says that his country needs water standards for bottled drinking water and pipe water and that the ASTM standards help ensure that "drinking water does not contain harmful pathogens and chemical contaminants."

Mbungwana says that SABS is focused on water safety and quality, and its national standard SANS 241, Part 1 and Part 2, are used by the Department of Water and Sanitation for water safety audits. SANS 241 references and recommends ASTM methods to monitor water quality. In addition, the adopted ASTM standards are widely used by water suppliers as well as South Africa municipalities.

In Uganda, through its 1995 constitution, the country states it will endeavor to provide clean and safe water, among other opportunities. To do so, the country is monitoring water sources and using technology to improve access. The Uganda Bureau of Standards references an ASTM method for measuring solids in water (D5907) in three of its drinking water specifications: for packaged drinking water, mineral water and potable water.

Margaret Lungu is standards manager for the Zambia Bureau of Standards, and a past participant in the ASTM Standards Expert Program. Lungu describes the situation in her country. "Our need for water standards includes drinking water standards, standards on effluents, and most recently, the management of waste water as well as standards on ground water resources. These needs have been necessitated by challenges which include inadequate availability of potable water, inadequate sanitation and high levels of waste water." The Zambian water supply and sanitation regulator uses ZABS standards for drinking water quality, bottled drinking water, discharged industrial effluent, and ground water resource development and management. ZABS has adopted a D19 test for copper in water and anticipates the possibility of more.

Committee D19 standards, used by environmental agencies in the United States and other countries around the world, will continue to respond to water-related needs and support global efforts to provide clean water for everyone.

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