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Home The River Basin People and the River Governance Resource Management


Access to Water

Traditionally, communities are often located close to a source of water; however, other factors are considered in settlement, including access to grazing and cultivatable land. Therefore, water must often be gathered from some distance away.

Water is a fundamental requirement needed to sustain life and well-being. Therefore, improving access to water is a critical element of poverty alleviation. As it is such a key requirement for livelihoods, it is often used as a key development indicator. Governments of the four basin states have made significant progress in past decades towards the provision of water to rural and isolated communities.

Water Collection

A study conducted by WHO/UNICEF (2008) found that when people are required to travel more than 30 minutes on a single water-hauling trip, they are more likely to compromise their daily water consumption, carrying less water than the household needs for basic needs (drinking water, food preparation and personal hygiene). When drinking water is not readily available, women are more than twice as likely as men to shoulder the burden of collecting and hauling drinking water from a remote location.

Women typically travel long distances to collect water in rural communities.
Source: CSIR 2003
( click to enlarge )

Access to Water in the Basin

In the global and African context, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe have managed to provide reasonable, improved access to water and sanitation for their citizens. Mozambique provides relatively low rates of access compared with the other basin countries.

Access to improved drinking water sources and improved sanitation in the Limpopo River basin countries.


Population 20071

Proportion urbanised
(%) (2010)2

Access to improved
drinking water sources (%) (2006) 3

Access to improved
(2006) 3







1 756 651







20 366 795






South Africa

47 900 000







11 392 629






1-LBPTC 2010
2- United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2009-2010 projections.
3- WHO 2008

For more information about drinking-water and sanitation in the basin visit the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation website. The JMP is tasked with monitoring progress towards the Millennium Development Goals for goals relating to drinking-water and sanitation.

Child dysentery in the Limpopo Valley

In a study by Gundry et al. (2009) the incidence of child dysentery in Vhembe District in South Africa and Zaka District in Zimbabwe, located on either side of the Limpopo River, is looked at in relation to water sources. Vhembe District had a higher incidence of childhood diarrhoeal disease than the national average (224,3/1 000 compared with the national average of 133,4/1 000). Both districts had below average access to improved water supplies and sanitation (59 % compared with 93 % average in South Africa and 46 % compared with 81 % for Zimbabwe).

Water quality testing showed that for improved water sources such as standpipes and improved groundwater E. coli counts were less than 10 cfu/100mL in 90 % of cases. For unimproved sources (unimproved groundwater sources and surface water) E. coli counts were less than 10 cfu/100mL in only 26 % of cases.

Source: Gundry et al. 2009

Access to Water

Access to clean potable water and to basic sanitation is a key indicator for human development. According to United Nations (UN) standards, access to safe water (see the Box below) is measured by the proportion of the population with access to an adequate amount of safe drinking water located within a convenient distance from the user’s dwelling (WHO/UNICEF 2008).

The Drinking Water Ladder

Drinking water supply can be broken down into three categories, illustrated in the form of a "drinking water ladder". The category "improved drinking water sources" includes sources that, by nature of their construction or through active intervention, are protected from outside contamination, particularly faecal matter. These include piped water in a dwelling, plot or yard, and other improved sources. "Unimproved sources" make up the third part of the ladder.

  • Unimproved drinking water sources (unprotected dug well, unprotected spring, cart with small tank/drum, tanker truck, and surface water (river, dam, lake, pond, stream, canal, irrigation channels), bottled water)
  • Improved drinking water sources other than piped water (public taps or standpipes, tube wells or boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs and rainwater collection)
  • Water piped into a dwelling, plot or yard (piped household water connection located inside the user’s dwelling, plot or yard).
Source: WHO/UNICEF 2008

Chronic poverty is usually induced by long-term exposure to threats such as drought, famine and conflict. It is usually further exacerbated by remoteness as access to government services, markets, sanitation and healthcare often dwindle with distance from major urban centres. Due to their lack of proximity to these livelihood components, the rural poor are often the most vulnerable.

Due to their economic position, most impoverished people usually live in conditions with poor sanitation and limited or no access to clean water, thus further increasing their vulnerability. These combined multiple factors are often referred to as the cycle of poverty: numerous factors, such as malnutrition, illness and poor living conditions, that when combined, make it difficult for people to break out of the conditions of poverty to improve their level of well-being and create a more positive livelihood. That is, it is difficult to get and maintain a job or produce your own food when you are suffering from malaria or malnourishment. Poverty and health are inextricably connected issues that form a feedback loop.

Due to an inability or reduced capacity to work, sickness, disability and poor health increase poverty. Poverty, in turn, through reduced quality of life, exposes individuals and communities to health risks, as these groups are often marginalised to poor quality land with no facilities. Poor sanitation is a significant cause of illness and death in Africa. Burgeoning urban populations mean that many migrants seeking work in cities end up living in high-density, low-cost housing on the fringes of cities. Informal housing has little or no sanitation resulting in greatly increased health risks.