Communities in Sweden and Kenya; water crisis in common?

Helfrid Schulte-Herbrüggen

For Swedes, it is a shocking realisation that we may not be able to take abundant water for granted anymore. This summer has been an unusual one; the groundwater levels in many part of the country have been at their lowest since monitoring by the Swedish Geological Survey (SGU) began.

sandhamnGroundwater shortage has affected many Swedish coastal communities. Photo: Björn Schulte-Herbrüggen

Sweden, the country of the thousand lakes and abundant water is at risk of a groundwater crisis. For the third year in a row the rain and snowfall was lower than usual and the re-charge to the groundwater low, leaving groundwater levels significantly below normal in most populated parts of the country. Authorities warn that this will be the driest year in a 100 years and that water shortage may follow. Coastal communities are severely affected. During the previous summer water had to be brought by trucks to the island of Öland, while Gotland had to enforce restrictions on the water use and piped distribution.

Poor water quality has also caused alarm. A large study showed that over 20% of the country’s’ water supplies were affected by PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a chemical used for e.g. firefighting. People worry about whether pharmaceuticals or other chemicals might be present in their drinking water. In fact, groundwater in Sweden is naturally high in e.g. uranium, fluoride and radon in certain areas. A recent study found micro-plastics in drinking water worldwide and banned chemicals are detected in groundwater. A reminder that we are all part of the ecosystem, and the non-degradable chemicals or materials we produce, ultimately circulate and end up as part of our food chain or in our drinking water. Badly controlled decentralised waste water points can cause eutrophication and contamination of drinking water sources, while over-extraction of groundwater causes salinization.

I am just returning from having informed members of the general public in Sweden about water quality and sampling methods; and I reflect on similar work carried out in Ghana and Kenya, where communities suffer from water scarcity and poor-quality drinking water. They organise water management committees and community saving schemes to be able to pay for a share of a drinking water source (borehole or rainwater harvesting) installed with the help of an NGO or government. Sanitation is often basic at best and waste water treatment non-existent. Through the “human rights based approach”, communities are being encouraged to hold their authorities accountable for the human right to basic water and sanitation services.

washnutDiscussing challenges facing Kenyan community. Photo: Björn Schulte-Herbrüggen

I reflect on the similarities: water scarcity, poor water quality, the need to save water, to organise management, maintenance and financing committees. I also reflect on differences: financial resources available and basic education levels. Communities across the world are facing great challenges in order to ensure a secure water supply of good quality water. Often it is up to the communities themselves to self-organise.

With this in mind I am very much looking forward to the next phase of our SIANI expert group: “Strengthening collaboration at the WASH, food and nutrition nexus to build community resilience in low income countries” (WASHnut). We will be analysing case studies which span across the sectors of water, sanitation, hygiene (WASH) and food/nutrition security. We will look at how one can work across sectors and gain from synergies such as water reuse, nutrient reuse and the benefits of integrating WASH and nutrition goals. I am convinced that there will be many good experiences to share and learning to be done, for low and high-income countries alike.

/ Helfrid Schulte-Herbrüggen


Helfrid Schulte-Herbrüggen arbetar på Ecoloop sedan augusti 2017. Hon är expert på mark- och vattenkvalitet och reningsprocesser och har erfarenhet inom småskaliga VA-system och resiliensbyggande.

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