The potential of electrolysis to transform access to clean water in Africa

Africa is a continent of breath-taking beauty and a remarkable variety of ecosystems, from arid deserts to dense tropical plains, vast grasslands, towering mountains and rugged coastlines. While this natural diversity is both a source of beauty and biodiversity, it also presents significant challenges when it comes to providing access to safe drinking water for all the continent’s people.

Why is this the case? For one thing, Africa is home to some of the largest and driest deserts on the planet, such as the Sahara and the Kalahari, where rainfall is scarce and erratic, making freshwater scarce. Desertification, exacerbated by climate change and deforestation, also contributes to soil degradation and the loss of water resources, further complicating the situation.

On the other hand, Africa is also home to regions with high levels of rainfall and flood risk, especially in the tropical and coastal areas. While abundant rainfall can be a huge asset for agriculture and wildlife, it can also lead to flash floods, soil erosion and water pollution, making it difficult to obtain clean and safe water.

On top of this, large swathes of land are sparsely populated, especially in the desert and rural regions. In these remote areas, the lack of adequate infrastructure, such as water supply and wastewater treatment systems, makes it difficult for scattered communities to access basic water and sanitation services. In these areas, transporting equipment, materials and personnel over vast distances and difficult terrain often increases costs and complicates the provision of sustainable drinking water systems.

The current situation regarding access to safe drinking water in Africa

These natural factors, together with the lack of sufficient investment in the development of new infrastructures or in the maintenance of existing ones, mean that the lack of access to drinking water is a daily reality for millions of people on the African continent.

Water sources contaminated with bacteria, parasites and harmful chemicals are a constant threat to public health in many communities. In addition, drought, climate change and lack of adequate infrastructure further worsen this crisis, leaving millions of people vulnerable to waterborne diseases and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

According to the WHO, more than 2 billion people worldwide in 2021 still live in water-scarce countries, a situation that is expected to worsen in some regions as a result of climate change and population growth. According to the Summary Progress Update 2021: SDG 6 – water and sanitation for all, in Africa the problem is more acute in sub-Saharan countries than in North and West Africa. While significant progress is being made to provide safe drinking water and access to basic sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, investment is still needed to achieve the SDG target of providing access and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Electrolysis is now positioned as a highly efficient solution

Faced with this scenario, electrolysis is positioned as one of the most promising technologies for water purification in Africa. In short, the electrolysis of brine is an electrochemical process from which sodium hypochlorite, along with other derivatives, is obtained. Sodium hypochlorite, thanks to its fungicidal and bactericidal properties, is used to make water safe for human consumption, among other uses.

For this reason, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of projects to build electrolysis plants in both urban and rural areas to produce sodium hypochlorite and facilitate the purification of water for domestic, industrial or agricultural use. What are the advantages of this?

  • By generating sodium hypochlorite locally, the costs, drawbacks and regulatory restrictions associated with its transport are reduced.
  • These electrolysis plants can adapt their capacity according to current and expected production needs.
  • The process can be powered by electricity from renewable sources.

So, with the support of governments, non-profit organisations and the private sector, electrolysis could play a pivotal role in transforming the water landscape on the African continent.

In the end, making water safe to drink is fundamental to ensuring the health and wellbeing of African communities. When water is properly treated, contaminants and pathogens are removed, which dramatically reduces the risk of water-related diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid fever. Access to safe drinking water also promotes hygiene, makes agriculture easier and contributes to economic development by reducing the burden of disease and improving productivity.