How the private sector didn’t solve Ghana’s water crisis

July 29th, 2012

Published on Pambazuka News, by Judith Amanthis, July 26, 2012.

Government investment, rather than privatisation or international aid, offers the best solution for water services in Ghana. Seventy percent of Ghanaian homes don’t have a WC or a pit latrine. Piped water, if you have it at all, is intermittent, so water in your tap depends on whether you can afford a domestic reservoir. In 2005, the World Bank secured a private sector solution to the water crisis in Ghana – the first independent sub-Saharan African country, and one of the first to be economically adjusted for corporate benefit. But Ghanaian campaigners had different ideas for their taps and toilets.  

A remarkable turnaround in Ghana’s water sector occurred in June 2011. After five years of managing Ghana’s urban water services, Aqua Vitens Rand Ltd, a Dutch South African water corporation, failed to renew its contract with the government-owned Ghana Water Company Ltd. Ghanaian opponents to water privatisation had won a resounding victory. They effectively wrong footed the World Bank, private sector advocate and major funder of Ghana’s water sector.

In Accra, you’re unlikely to have a WC plus individual cesspit unless you’re in the elite minority, and pit latrines are largely rural. You therefore have a few options. You can defecate in a bucket or a pan and pay for your ‘night soil’ to be taken, probably manually and illegally, perhaps twice a week, to a cesspit whose contents are then emptied by sewage tankers. You can walk to and then queue for a public latrine, most likely a subhuman hangover from colonial days where you pay for a bit of newspaper to wipe yourself and where there may be six stalls serving 1,000 people. You can defecate in a plastic bag and deposit it in the storm drains that line your street. You can defecate in a storm drain. You can defecate on the beach. Men often urinate in drains. Women sometimes put a bucket under their skirts. The only area with underground piped sewers is the ex-colonial enclave, round Osu, where the president lives and Ministries are located. At the wittily-named Lavender Hill, near some of the poorest areas in town, sewage tankers squirt raw sewage into the sea. A World Bank and Ghanaian government funded treatment plant is said to be in the pipeline at Lavender Hill.

If you have piped water, it’s not safe to drink, however rich or poor you are. If you can afford it, you buy either sachet water or bottled water to drink. Bottled water is expensive, on average GHc2 (US$1.9) a litre when the minimum wage is GHc4.48 (US$2.66) a day. The media periodically report sachet water scams. In any case, your tap will be dry perhaps 75% of the time, depending on your topological relationship to the local pumping station. If you can afford it, you install a huge polytank (a cylindrical plastic container) on a tower in your garden, plumb it into your domestic system, and fill it up when the taps are running. If you can’t afford it, you store water in jerry cans wherever you have room. You might seek professional help to fix your water meter, illegally. If you don’t have piped water, and you’re not paying bills to the Ghana Water Company, you might employ a professional to plumb you into a mains water pipe, illegally. If you don’t, you must buy from a water tanker, or from a stand pipe, which is more expensive than tap or domestically stored water. Fetching three buckets of water a day can cost you between 10% and 20% of your daily income. Thus, the poorer you are, the more you’re likely to pay for water in absolute terms.

Despite these huge problems, in January 2011 the World Bank was confidently stating that Ghana was ‘making steady progress’ towards the United Nations 2015 Millennium Development Goal for safe drinking water… //

… It’s worth remembering that during colonial occupation, African economies were organised primarily for the extraction of raw materials to their northern ‘masters’. Political independence did not bring economic independence, and the advent of IMF and World Bank economic restructuring from the 1980s onwards, driven by conditions on loans and grants, has maintained extractive exploitation. According to Quartey, Public Private Partnership, as in the Aqua Vitens Rand Ltd debacle, is still the World Bank’s preferred privatisation vehicle.

What solutions are there? Quartey and the coalition want increased government spending: the water sector is more than 80% donor funded. But Ghanaians can finance their water sector themselves. Since 2010, the country has produced oil. It’s one of the world’s leading gold and cocoa producers. Taxation needs to be properly regulated, in particular corporate tax loopholes blocked. Last year’s increase in corporate tax on mining companies was a step in the right direction, Quartey said.

Ghana is a wealthy country, as is Africa as a whole. The Ghanaian government, with a little help from the anti water privatisation coalition, need not submit to World Bank pressure. And then there’s China. (full text).

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