Society - West Africa - Ghana - Kenya - Panafrica - Rwanda - Development - Investment - Health
Water for all: Different approaches to common challenges
Until six years ago, Eugenia Uwamahoro had to trek 2 kilometres each day to a river to get water for drinking, cooking, washing and feeding her four cows. There was a water pump in her village, Nyakabingo, in Rwanda’s Gicumbi district, but it hardly functioned. Then the Rwandan government, with financial support from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), repaired the pump, and the community contracted a private manager to maintain it.

By Efam Dovi

Until six years ago, Eugenia Uwamahoro had to trek 2 kilometres each day to a river to get water for drinking, cooking, washing and feeding her four cows. There was a water pump in her village, Nyakabingo, in Rwanda’s Gicumbi district, but it hardly functioned. Then the Rwandan government, with financial support from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), repaired the pump, and the community contracted a private manager to maintain it.

“It has improved my life,” Ms. Uwamahoro told African Renewal. “Now we can rest.” Not only has the pump saved her considerable time and effort, but she also gets her household’s daily water supply at lower cost than she would have from the private village water carriers who cart it up from the river. Those who cannot afford the fee for use of the pump get an agreed quantity free.

Despite an abundance of water on the continent, however, most Africans are not so lucky. Across the continent, half of all rural households do not have access to clean drinking water; although the situation is better in urban areas, where 80 per cent of the population is covered. Yet more than half of city and town dwellers do not have a tap in their house or yard, reports the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

African leaders have declared their commitment to achieving universal access to clean water through their development blueprint, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). But the UN Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that total spending in the water and sanitation sectors in sub-Saharan Africa is only around $800 mn a year — far less than what is needed. Charging users for water, bringing in the private sector and/or reforming and expanding publicly owned water services, could raise more money. But each of these solutions poses challenges on a continent where many cannot afford the cost of private water supplies and governments lack the financial resources and management know-how to make water both affordable and available. Expanding access to clean water, UNDP argued in 2006, will require a combination of public and private sector initiatives. “Decisions about the appropriate public-private mix,” it added, “have to be taken case by case on [the basis of] local values and conditions.”

Different approaches

The different approaches adopted by Kenya and Ghana illustrate some of the challenges. In Kenya, new water policies have led to improvements in the quality of water from the country’s public system raised revenue collection and brought more boreholes to rural communities. A 2002 water act decentralized the management of water resources and delivery. Local public companies were formed to manage water in municipalities. They largely achieved their goal of increasing the number of customers served with improved water by 50 per cent and reducing water wastage by over 40 per cent, without raising tariffs. Although obtaining clean water remains a challenge in some poorer communities, observers note, Kenya’s public sector reforms have paid off.

Some publicly owned water utilities in Africa “are efficiently run using local management structures,” notes Stephen Donkor, a senior adviser on water issues for the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa. Their achievements, he says, counter the negative image held by some that African public utilities are inherently inefficient and can only be improved by the introduction of private owners or contractors.

Ghana, in contrast, has attempted to meet its needs by enlisting the private sector. The public water utility, the Ghana Water Company, Ltd. (GWCL), had previously been able to provide water to about half of the country’s population of 20 million. But it could not afford to make significant repairs or expand. Ruby Amable of Ashongman, a middle-income resident of Accra, was one of the utility’s many customers to lose service. The supply from her household connection worsened until it ran completely dry, she noted. She then had little option but to buy from private water tank operators — spending the equivalent of $50 each month to fill her overhead tank.

At the urging of the World Bank, the government restructured the GWCL. It increased water tariffs by more than 90 per cent and wrote off $100 mn in debts that the company owed. In 2005, the government secured a $103 mn grant from the World Bank to invest in GWCL, and brought in a private water company, Aqua Vitens Rand, Ltd. (AVRL), to manage the GWCL. It also set a goal of installing some 50,000 new household connections and 350 public standpipes in Ghana’s main towns.

Nearly two years later, many customers are still looking at dry pipes. AVRL officials blame Ghana’s energy crisis and the government for failing to make the needed investments. Domestic critics, however, question the wisdom of bringing in outside managers. “The problem with Ghana’s water distribution system is not exactly that of management, but rather investment,” Steve Manteaw, an executive member of the Ghana National Coalition Against Water Privatization, told Africa Renewal. “The pipelines are old and there is a need to inject massive capital investment.”

In fact, says the UNDP, “The challenge for all providers, public and private, is to extend access and overcome the price disadvantage” faced by hundreds of millions of Africa’s poor. Doing that, the experts agree, will require investment in both human and financial capital to manage the trade-off between expanded access and costs and keep the water flowing.

Photo: Evan Schneider


Ghana

dossier : Africa Renewal

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