Eritrea, being located in Sudano-Sahelian Africa which is characterised by an arid and semi-arid climate, possesses limited water resources. More than 80% of the population depend on groundwater as the main source of drinking water; with the increase in frequency of recurring drought, groundwater scarcity is already worsening in some parts of the country .
The country faces a number of serious challenges related to water resources management. Key factors which adversely impact the water sector include climate variability, increasing demand for water as a result of development and population growth, low level of investment on improving the supply and efficiency of water use, an inadequate regulatory and enforcement mechanism for proper water allocation and use, a high level of environmental degradation, and a low level of knowledge on the resources .
In 2017, about 59.7% and 95% of the population had access to safe drinking water supply in rural and urban areas, respectively, with the national coverage being 71%. However, in most of the cities and towns, the supply is grossly inadequate, and the quality of water supplied through water supply networks is very poor. Further, rapidly increasing migration to urban areas is straining the capacity of existing facilities and the burgeoning needs of the urban poor require attention .
About 30% of Eritreans lack access to improved sanitation (in 2019), and open defecation is still practised widely. Additionally, significant disparities persist between urban and rural areas; less than half of the rural population has access to improved sanitation, and more than 20% lack access to an improved source of drinking water (in 2019) .
Diarrhoea is one of the three leading causes of under-five mortality in Eritrea, according to the country’s health management information system. Data from the 2010 Eritrea Population and Health Survey reveal that diarrhoea prevalence is highest (11%) among children living in households that lack an improved source of drinking water. Other contributing factors are related to deprivation of appropriate sanitation and hygiene facilities within communities, schools and health facilities .
The root causes of water related problems in Eritrea include highly uneven distribution of water availability, extreme catchment degradation, low investments on water storage and infrastructure, increasing water demand, pollution of freshwater, improper procedures and regulatory instruments, absence of water costs, lack of monitoring, assessment and evaluation of water resources, absence of enacted water resources policy, insufficient legislative and legal framework, inefficient institutional framework, weak financing mechanisms and inadequate professional and technical capacity .
In addition, inadequate water conservation practices, inefficiency in water use, water reuse, a prevalent system of water rights which gives unlimited ownership of groundwater to the landowner despite the fact that groundwater is a shared resource from common pool aquifers and disassociation of communities in water resources management are also prevalent challenges .
Demand for freshwater in rural and urban areas is expected to increase as a result of rapid climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization, economic activity, competition for water and improved standards of living .
Key policies and governance approach
National policies related to water resources in Eritrea include, among others, the National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP-E), National Action Program under United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (NAP-UNCCD), National Environmental Impact Assessment Procedures and Guidelines (NEAPG), Coastal Policy and its Guidance Document, and the Eritrean Water Resources Policy (2004 & 2007) .
Eritrea is also a member of the Global Water Partnership (GWP) programme that aims at contributing to sustainable development and poverty reduction through using an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach. Pursuant to the GWP guidelines, the Water Resource Department (WRD) of the Ministry of Land, Water and Environment (MoLWE) prepared the Action Plan for Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) in Eritrea (2009-2016) , .
A water resources law for the State of Eritrea was proclaimed in 2010, with the objective to conserve and develop the water resource base of Eritrea; to promote and integrate all efforts by various institutions, in light of acceptable international norms and practices to achieve sustainable socio-economic development and ecosystem stability . The Eritrean Water Proclamation, among other things, creates a system of water resources planning by mandating inventory of water resources; introduces novel provisions on pollution prevention and water quality control; lays out a framework for water pricing; and empowers the MoLWE to implement the Proclamation . However, as of 2017, it had yet to be put into effect .
The Government of Eritrea, with support from UNICEF, has developed the 2019–2030 OneWASH Strategy and Investment Plan to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The plan’s strategic objectives reflect key Sustainable Development Goal 6 targets: no one practices open defecation; everyone has safe water, sanitation and hygiene at home; all schools and health centres have sustainable WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) facilities; and inequalities in access are progressively eliminated . Additionally, Eritrea is implementing the Roadmap to End Open Defecation in Eritrea by 2022 .
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
The government of Eritrea has made significant improvements in harnessing water resources through the construction of dams, ponds, wells and diversion structures to increase its availability in terms of time and location. Additionally, efforts are ongoing to improve water availability through the construction and installation of canals and water pipe networks .
Nonetheless, the mismanagement and inefficient use of water resources remains a dominant problem, attributed to various interrelated factors, including extreme catchment degradation, uncontrolled use of bore wells, pollution of freshwater, improper procedures and regulatory systems, absence of water costs and enacted water resources policy, lack of consistent monitoring, assessment and evaluation, insufficient legislative and legal framework, inefficient institutional framework, poor coordination among water related sectors, limited data and information sharing, weak financing mechanisms and inadequate professional and technical capacity, among others .
The existing human resources and institutions may be incapable to meet the knowledge and skills required for the assessment, development, co-ordination, management, and protection of water resources systems in the country. Findings from a review conducted on Eritrea’s water resources suggested that the way forward should be the establishment of a well-organized National Water Technology Institute to carry out training, research, outreach and consultancy works to address and overcome the water resources development challenges .
Many of the obstacles to improving WASH outcomes in Eritrea are related to financing. A total budget of US$674,357,0006 is required to implement OneWASH . A WASH bottleneck analysis and desk review, undertaken to inform the OneWASH strategy development process, highlighted the following challenges in relation to budgeting & financing: insufficient public budget allocations, low levels of budget utilization, and high donor dependence; insufficient revenue generation through tariffs; insufficient funding (development aid and private investments) for WASH service delivery arising from the absence of a ready pipeline of bankable projects in each subsector; non-availability of national and Zoba level costed WASH sector plans and related investment plans, including clearly defined responsibilities and accountabilities; limited capacity at Zoba level to participate in budget planning; absence of an overarching government-led capacity development plan; lack of information on sector and sub-national level expenditure flow and utilization; and a weak service delivery model (mode of delivery) with limited coverage and low standard at the Zoba (regional) level .
Goals and Ambitions
Eritrea’s overall WASH goals are:
- By 2030, all people living in Eritrea will have sustainable and equitable access to sufficient, safe and affordable drinking water.
- By 2030, all people living in Eritrea will have access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene facilities – with a special focus on the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations – and open defecation will be eliminated.
Eritrea will achieve these goals by implementing three pillars of the OneWASH Strategic Framework: (1) Strengthening the enabling environment; (2) Regional (zoba-level) WASH planning and implementation; and (3) WASH service delivery (supply and demand) .
 Zerisenay Habtezion (2011). ‘Green’ Features of Recent Water Law Reform in Eritrea: A Brief Appraisal. IUCN Academy of Environmental Law e-Journal Issue 2011.
 UNICEF (2020). [Online]. Available: https://www.unicef.org/esa/stories/eritrea-commits-providing-access-clean-water-and-sanitation-all.