Located within the Zambezi River basin and Congo River basin, Zambia has abundant surface water and groundwater [1]. However, there is an uneven distribution of water resources across the country [1], [2]. Climate change may exacerbate existing problems related to uneven distribution [1] and is projected to reduce water availability by about 13% by 2100. The different impacts on the water sector are expected to range from reduced water recharge in the case of increased temperature and reduced rainfall, compromised water quality, destruction to infrastructure and general reduction in water availability [3].

Climate change affects the amount and seasonality of rainfall and inflows into most rivers which has in turn affected the amount of electricity generated using hydroelectric. Zambia has invested significantly in hydroelectric power facilities. Reservoir storage in these facilities shows marked sensitivity to variations in runoff during periods of drought. Major dams have reached critical levels, threatening industrial activities [3].

Degrading water quality is increasingly undermining the important role of water in the country’s economic development [2]. The cost of water pollution is high. Water pollution negatively impacts health through the increased disease burden from poor quality drinking water, degrades the environment through accumulated toxins, nutrient loading and decreased biodiversity, and hurts the economy by reducing productivity and raising the cost of water treatment. Water quality is also directly linked to water availability, as the pollution of water resources may prohibit certain uses, such as providing safe drinking water [4].

Access to water supply and sanitation (WSS) services remains low in Zambia and disparities exist between rural and urban populations. As of 2017, about 67% of Zambians had access to an improved water source (51% rural vs 89% urban) and only about 44% had access to an improved sanitation facility (19% rural vs 49% urban). Approximately 19% of Zambians practice open defecation. Zambia is one of the countries that missed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on access to water and sanitation and is on track to miss the more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Access rates have remained almost stagnant over the past 15 years. Even where there is access, the quality of service is poor, especially in small rural towns and peri urban areas. Households receive an average of 16 hours of water supply per day, 6% of water samples in urban areas fail bacteriological tests, and sanitation and sewer collection and treatment remain poor [5].

According to the World Bank (2017), poor WSS service is partly responsible for the high levels of childhood stunting (40%) in the country, which represents a staggering loss of human potential in Zambia. Cholera outbreaks are also a common occurrence. The cholera outbreak in October 2017 resulted in 5,900 cases and claimed 114 lives. Additionally, the WSS plays a critical role in Zambia’s economy. World Bank estimates suggest that Zambia loses US$194 million every year due to poor sanitation, equivalent to 1.3% of the country’s GDP [5].


Climate change projections point to increased inter-annual variability, with extremely wet periods and more intense droughts in the future. Observable and potential effects of climate change on water resources in Zambia include flooding, drought, change in the frequency and distribution of rainfall, drying-up of rivers and receding of water bodies, among others [3].

Zambia’s surface water bodies, such as the Kafue River, are under significant stress from discharges of industrial waste and sewage, and agricultural run-off of pesticides, fertilizers and sediment. Meanwhile, strategic groundwater resources, such as the aquifer system underlying Lusaka, are contaminated by on-site sanitation, industrial effluent and solid waste [4].


Key policies and governance approach

The 1994 National Water Policy was revised considering issues such as the principles of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). This culminated into the development of the 2010 National Water Policy and the enactment of the Water Resources Management Act No. 21 of 2011 which provides the legal framework for the revised policy [6]. This led to the establishment of the National Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) [7] which is responsible for the management, development, conservation, protection and preservation of water resources and its ecosystems [6].

Water pollution is strictly prohibited under Section 46 of the Environmental Management Act 2011, and under Section 48 of the Act, the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) is given the mandate to “do all such things as are necessary for the monitoring and control of water pollution”, including: establishing pollution control standards; setting conditions for the discharge of effluent into the environment and issuing and monitoring effluent discharge licenses; monitoring water quality data; carrying out Environmental Impact Assessments for developments that may have an impact on water resources; and investigating suspected cases of water pollution [4].

The WSS sector is primarily the responsibility of Ministry of Water Development, Sanitation and Environmental Protection (MWDSEP). The country’s National Water Supply and Sanitation Policy (2020) is aimed at accelerating universal access to clean and safe water and adequate sanitation in Zambia. The development of the policy is anchored on the National Vision (Vision 2030) and the SDGs, and its implementation shall be through National Development Plans and National Strategic Plans [6].

Other relevant plans in Zambia include the Integrated Water Resources Management and Water Efficiency (IWRM/WE) Implementation Plan (2007-2030), Ministerial and Institutional Strategic Plans, National Drought Plan of 2018, and the Seventh National Development Plan (7NDP) [7].

Zambia is also party to the following agreements, protocols and plans that exist at regional and basin level; (i) Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM), (ii) SADC Declaration and Treaty, (iii) SADC Regional Indicative Development Plan, (iv) SADC Revised Protocol on Shared Waters, (v) SADC Regional Strategic Action Plan (RSAP IV), (vi) Convention on The Sustainable Management of Lake Tanganyika [7].



The main challenges to the implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in Zambia include inadequate funding; limited data sharing among institutions; limited monitoring instruments or network for surface and groundwater; incomplete governance structures; and limited stakeholder awareness on the need to recognise vulnerable groups to participate in water resources planning and management [7].  

The water supply and sanitation (WSS) sector is also challenged by inadequate funding, with the historical budget allocation showing a declining trend. Annual average budget allocation to the sector programs was US$140 million per year under the Sixth National Development Plan and fell to US$80 million per year under the Seventh National Development Plan. Additionally, the budget allocations approved by the Ministry of Finance (MoF) are almost always lower than those in the National Development Plan, and actual releases are always lower than the approved budget. In some years, releases have fallen to only 40% of the budgeted amount [5].

Two flagship national programs, the National Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Program (NRWSSP) and the National Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Program (NUWSSP), aim to accelerate improvements in WSS coverage across the country. However, budget allocations and releases have been inconsistent with the program’s ambitions. The NRWSSP especially, is insufficiently funded. Planned NRWSSP expenditure for 2016–20 was US$66 million per year, but actual MoF allocations between 2016 and 2018 for rural water supply and sanitation (RWSS) was just US$14 million per year. So far, both major flagship programs have failed to close the service gap [5].


[3], [4], [5], [7]

  • Lobby for more funding for the water sector.
  • Enhance stakeholder collaboration on data sharing with regard to IWRM.
  • Enhance and expand surface and groundwater monitoring networks.
  • Fully implement the water governance structure at all levels.
  • Enhance stakeholder awareness on the need to recognise vulnerable groups to participate in water resources planning and management.
  • The Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) must take measures to ensure accountability to the public in delivering its mandate for pollution control.
  • WARMA, in collaboration with ZEMA and the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS) must develop ambient water standards, establish a monitoring regime, and set water quality objectives for water resources in areas that are highly vulnerable to pollution.
  • Make use of public health data to target and prioritize WSS investments that yield the most significant reduction in public health risks.
  • Sanitation will require new public financing mechanisms that recognize the public good aspects of sanitation.
  • There is a need to rethink existing community management models for water supply services in rural areas and get better data on actual implementation and operations and maintenance to modify the current models.
  • The government will also need to address broader public sector governance constraints, particularly the slow pace of decentralization and the low capacity at the district level.
  • Measures to address climate change impacts on the water sector include the promotion of water harvesting structures and wastewater recycling technologies and implementation of energy efficient and alternative renewable energy sources.
  • In addition, the promotion of research and development of inter-basin water transfer, integrated watershed and land-use management and protection of groundwater aquifers must be undertaken.


[2] The University of Zambia (2013). Country Water Resources Profile.



[4] Fair Water Futures. Dirty water: Accounting for pollution control in Zambia Findings of the Fair Water Futures programme.

[5] World Bank. 2020. Zambia Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Diagnostic : Narrowing the Gap between Policy and Practice. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.

[6] Ministry of Water Development, Sanitation and Environmental Protection (2020). National Water Supply and Sanitation Policy.

[7] MINISTRY OF WATER DEVELOPMENT, SANITATION AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION (2020). SDG Indicator 6.5.1 IWRM Survey National reporting on status of IWRM implementation 2020: Zambia.