Published February 17, 2012
The rusting hulk of a semi truck rests on the side of the road in Accra, Ghana. Beneath the driver-side door, water seeps up from the ground and forms a small pool, making an island of the decomposing front tire.
At 9 p.m. on a Sunday, we find Michael and Gifty, two school-aged children, dipping water from the pool into buckets. They are collecting water for their families to use to wash—the water is not clean enough for drinking.
This scene plays out across Accra. It is a symptom and cause of the city’s inadequate piped water system.
The population of Accra has grown enormously in the past several decades. But the water supply system has not grown with it. In cities with a good water supply, the pipe network and treatment capacity grows with the city. In Accra, the people came first, and then city planners scrambled to catch up.
The city’s pipe network does not cover the densely populated areas and there is not enough water to fill what pipes there are. Wealthier neighborhoods enjoy the best access; the rest are left with infrequent service or none at all. But water is essential, and people do whatever is necessary to get it.
That often means illegally tapping into existing pipelines—the likely source of the water collected by Michael and Gifty. Another problem is poly-tanks, which are legal, but no less an obstacle to getting water to everyone. Wealthier households install these large reservoirs that are filled whenever the water runs. They can hold thousands of gallons, and so reduce the amount of water available to those downstream from the connection. Since there are few meters, a customer with several poly-tanks pays the same fee as one without any.
Between illegal tapping and the filling of poly-tanks for a flat fee, the Ghana Water Company is losing a lot of revenue. In fact, 50 percent of the water produced in Accra is not paid for. This is money that could be used to expand water works and the pipe network.
The Ghana Water Company has to turn to foreign donors and investors to finance these expansions. Kweku Botwe, acting managing director of the Ghana Water Company, says that close to all of their capital investment funding comes from abroad.
This would not be a problem, except that foreign interests don’t always align with domestic ones. And the government is reluctant to look their stable of gift horses in the mouth.
Alban Bagbin, the minister of water resources, works, and housing, says “many of our development partners are interested in developing treatment plants and not in supporting the expansion of the distribution network or the strengthening of the network. Only the World Bank and a few others are doing that in the Urban Water Project.” He identifies the weakness of the pipe network as a major problem.
With so much money coming from abroad, not all of it grants, the math wasn’t adding up. If the water company collected revenue on only 50 percent of its production, then how could it pay back the loans? It turns out that the Ghanaian government as a whole guarantees the loans—the water company is not strong enough to back them.
This arrangement displaces spending for other worthy sectors in the country, and is not necessary. Bagbin believes that the public can afford water rates high enough to cover maintenance and expansion; in fact the poor currently pay more than the rich for access, not just in lost time and poor health, but in terms of money, too.
Aside from drawing money from other sectors, the weakness of the water company is also perpetuating dependence on foreign donors and investors. Asked about whether Ghana will ever be self-sufficient in the water sector, Botwe equivocates, “In one breath, we say ‘no, no, no, it can’t be done.’ In another breath, it is a challenge for us Ghanaians. We cannot continue to forever hope that others will fund it for us.”
In the meantime, investment priorities will continue to be skewed by foreign donors and investors—meaning more treatment plants and fewer pipes.
That results in more illegal tapping and poly-tank filling by people desperate to get water. This leads to less collectible revenue, which reduces the water company’s creditworthiness. Since the government must back up the water company, donor and investor interests continue to take priority. It’s an unfortunate cycle, and not an easy one to break.
People are still moving to Accra. In 2010, the urban population of Ghana grew by 3.8 percent, a rate at which the population would double in less than 20 years. Villages on the fringes of Accra are becoming towns. One such community is Kubekro.
The road to Kubekro from downtown alternates between being paved and pockmarked red clay, as if the towns strung along the road sprang up without thought to being connected to their neighbors. A stream runs through Kubekro, and a small dam holds back the flow. Residents use the pooled water for drinking, cooking and washing. Their livestock drink it too, and often defecate along the banks.
Some residents get sick from the water, but the chief of Kubekro says that most people are used to it. Still, they want water from the city, and have been requesting it for years. “The MP said he was bringing pipes for the pipe-borne water, but we have not seen anything of that sort,” the chief says, adding that the government should be planning for the future.
Planning is one of the difficulties in Accra. The reason is people like Frank Doe. He lives with his young son in a cinder block house just a few yards from the dam, which was constructed without a building permit. He moved here from downtown Accra. Initially, Doe used water from the stream for drinking, but he got sick, so he built a rainwater collection system, which he reports is working well. Doe does not expect the government to provide him water.
Still, he enters into the data on water access in Accra, and since he built without a permit, the government will have a hard time planning to extend access to him. This is a major problem.
Emmanuel Nkrumah, a water and sanitation expert at the World Bank in Ghana, explains that they have maps of the water network, but they are of little use. Although an area on the map will show protected forest, visitors to the site will find houses. Or a residential area will turn out to be occupied by a filling station or a road. Once these communities are established, it’s not easy—or politically palatable—to move them. But people still demand water. Nkrumah is exasperated about the problem because even if the water company tries to bypass these illegal communities, the communities just connect themselves. “As long as you have this indiscipline,” he says, “you can never catch up.”
In interviews with leaders in the water sector in Ghana, frustration with illegal tapping surfaced again and again.
“You are attacking us, but when the people were planning to build, did anyone consult Ghana Water? They assume that water will be there,” says Botwe, the managing director. He describes his effort to bring water to urban Ghana as “being fought by 3,000 people [Ghana Water Company employees] against 25 million Ghanaians.”
Everyone, it seems, feels victimized, but ultimately the government will have to figure it out. Daniel Mensah, a municipal chief executive in Accra, recently brought piped water to a community that had not had it for 15 years. On his decision to expand access, he says, “We realized that they are part of the municipality, and we need to solve their water problem.”