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Potential Ignored is Potential Denied

The “youth bulge” in Africa doesn’t have to mean disaster for that continent’s already stressed water systems.

Africa is not alone in experiencing what demographers term a “youth bulge.” Indeed, as Rebecca Winthrop of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution pointed out at the USAID Africa Regional Education Workshop in Tanzania in June, “the world is experiencing the largest youth cohort in history,” with 1.5 billion people in the world between the ages of 12 and 24.

Collecting Water
Children working together to collect the household water

While not unique, the situation is more pronounced in Africa. In 1950, according to the 2009 World Population Data Sheet,  African youth aged 15 to 24 numbered 43 million, or 9 percent of the world’s youth population. By 2050, they will make up almost 30 percent of that population, reaching an estimated 348 million young people.

Of course, just as Africa is not alone in its demographics, I am far from the first to raise the issue. Demographers, international organizations and government agencies have all taken note of the youth bulge, generally presenting the issue as a gathering storm. I would argue, however, that great potential also exists thanks to the rising youth of Africa—if we can reach them with the right tools.

" we must insist on hands-on education that leads to awareness and promotes real action "

Not that worrying isn’t justified. Research shows that “countries with a very young age structure are consistently the most likely to face major challenges,” as Population Action International suggests in its report, “The Shape of Things to Come: Why Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World”.  And while many of the problems presented relate to employment opportunities, crime, HIV/AIDS and urbanization, the stresses that this growing population presents on water supplies and infrastructure that are already inadequate cannot be ignored.

“Assuming that current levels of investment in urban water supply and sanitation continue in sub-Saharan Africa over the next 20 years, as many as 300 million people will be without sanitation and 225 million without potable supplies of water in African cities by 2020,” warns a 2001 World Bank Regional Report.  Worsening conditions mean, among other things, increases in preventable waterborne illnesses such as cholera, dysentery and bilharzia (schistosomiasis).

That’s the bad news, and there is plenty more of it to go around.

School Children
Lake Victoria Primary School students learn healthy habits by playing a game called “Break the Chains”

Still, if we can place new emphasis on educating African children and youth about the importance of water—and in turn allow them to be part of creating local solutions to local problems—the youth bulge need not be catastrophic for Africa’s water systems. Africa’s youth could instead lead the charge for the kinds of changes that will be necessary to improve health and lives on the continent.

I’m not talking about the kind of education that can be achieved by donating old textbooks and school supplies—though, of course, materials are important. Rather, we must insist on hands-on education that leads to awareness and promotes real action.

In the 16 African countries where the Project WET Foundation has trained teachers and localized water science education materials in cooperation with educators and education ministries, teaching about water has led to real change that has improved lives—not only for schoolchildren but also for the community at large.

At the Lake Victoria Primary School in Entebbe, Uganda; for example, students who had been taught about water quality as well as sanitation and hygiene formed an after-school environment club to tackle some of the issues the lessons raised for them.

" the idea that youth could be part of the solution—rather than the cause of the problem—is one that deserves wider recognition "

Their first action was to resurrect an old rain barrel that had fallen into disuse and connect it with new gutters on the school to collect rain water for use in hand washing and other school water needs. At the time, the school had a single faucet—connected to the Entebbe municipal water system—for which they paid more than $600 per month. Once the rainwater collection system was put in place, they were able to add a second faucet and use the city water only sparingly. Their water bill dropped nearly 100 percent, down to about $30 per month.

With that system in place, the students in the club decided to clean up the school grounds, taking a cue from lessons they had learned about the effects of trash on surface and ground water. Once they had done their initial collections, they realized that much of the litter was paper that could be recycled into new paper products such as poster board for schools.

Those products were so well received that the students ventured into the community to collect more trash. Their ultimate goal—on which they are hard at work now—is to recycle enough to allow them to sell their goods to other schools, generating much-needed funds for the school. In the process, the students’ community cleanup and microeconomic improvement project has protected Lake Victoria and the area’s other water resources.

Ugandan Teachers
Ugandan teachers are being trained in an activity that demonstrates water resource management

In other communities, youth have made the tippy tap hand washing stations described in Project WET materials and carried the message of the importance of hand washing home to their families. In the central Ugandan village of Odike, students have helped install 10 tippy taps for the 30 homesteads in the community—still not enough to serve everyone but enough to improve hand washing rates, which in turn decreases the spread of those deadly but preventable diseases that I mentioned earlier.

While these are just small examples of what youth can do to impact communities, the model is powerful. Engaging lessons in water conservation, protection, sanitation and hygiene can lead to the kind of awareness that empowers meaningful local action. Moreover, children who learn at an early age that they can—and should—come together to make positive changes are more likely to become adults who take action.

Is water education a panacea for the constellation of social issues that are likely to result from the youth bulge in Africa—or even for the tremendous challenges within the water sector alone? Of course not. Still, the idea that youth could be part of the solution—rather than the cause of the problem—is one that deserves wider recognition. President Barack Obama just last month acknowledged the power of African youth by convening a three-day conference with more than 100 young African leaders.

In 2010, the UN-proclaimed International Year of Youth, we should be discussing how to engage this population—and finding ways to tap into the boundless potential of Africa’s youth to solve Africa’s water challenges.

Keywords: youth bulge, project wet, demographics


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1 Comment on this article.


Simple and sweet. I’m thinking of starting another blog or five pretty soon, and I’ll definitely consider this theme. Keep ‘em coming!

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John Etgen

Contributing Magazine Author

John Etgen is the senior vice president of the Project WET Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Montana that reaches children, parents, educators and communities in all 50 states and more than 50 countries with water education.

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