Thousands have gathered at this year's World Water Week in Stockholm to discuss improving water and sanitation services in some of the world's fastest growing cities.
In this diary from the event, I learn that Liberia, my homeland, has a long way to go.
“We run the risk of losing the battle on water and sanitation in many cities around the world, and that is a fight we cannot afford to lose,” says Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, one of the world’s leading groups for the improvement of water and sanitation.
Since 1991, World Water Week has been the focal point for global water issues. At this year’s event about 2,500 world leaders are to participate. This place looks like a miniature United Nations.
I keep looking at the identity cards of Africans that pass by me, looking for somebody from my tiny country of Liberia. This year’s theme is “Responding to Global Changes: Water in an Urbanizing World.” How does Mama Liberia fit into all of this? Is Liberia losing the battle on water and sanitation? I wonder.
Then this statement draws my attention:
“Over 800 million people live in slums, where water-related diseases such as diarrhea, malaria and cholera have devastating effects on the livelihood of families and the economies of the countries,” says Berntell. Immediately I start to think about Monrovia and its slums--West Point, Slipway, Daquee Town and Rock Spring Valley, just to name a few.
Global leaders are using World Water Week to call for more investment to secure water for ever expanding cities. More than 50 cities have passed the threshold of five million inhabitants. Many more like Monrovia, the Liberian capital, are mid-sized but fast-growing.
Monrovia's 1.5 million population (according to the 2008 housing census) constitutes about 40 percent of the country's population. Past census data show that 29 percent of the population of Liberia were living in urban areas in 1974. That figure jumped to 39 percent in 1984 and 47 percent in 2008.
“Monrovia faces the worst water and sanitation problems,” Chuchu Selmah, a program manager for WaterAid Liberia, told me in an interview in Monrovia before I left for Sweden.
A population study published in The Perspective in 2010 pointed to the overcrowding in Monrovia that has led to an increase in the number of slums, most of which lack proper sewage systems. "The absence or inadequacy of toilet facilities and the overall lack of proper hygienic conditions in these 'urban jungles' leads to the increase in communicable diseases such as cholera, which could result in the loss of lives," the study says.
Wow! So how is Liberia responding to urbanization?
The World Health Organization reported in 2008 that 18 percent of all deaths in Liberia were related to illnesses caused by poor water and sanitation.
"As a post-conflict country, Liberia's water and sanitation governance was weak and hampered by fragmented planning," Abdul Mashiru, WaterAid's regional advocacy manager for West Africa, tells an audience of about 150 people. "Despite these challenges, there are strong foundations to build on in Liberia as a result of high political engagement and the desire for success."
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government, like many in Africa, says it aims to improve water and sanitation issues dramatically in coming decades. But budgets often fall short.
The WASH consortium, a group of five organizations working to improve water and sanitation in Liberia, concluded that $93 million was needed to meet the government's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of making safe drinking water accessible to 50 percent of the population--up from 25 percent of the population--by 2012. The government also has set as a target improving human waste collection from 15 to 40 percent of the population.
Here at Water Week, there are some skeptics.
"No, no West African country will meet their commitment to the MDGs for water and sanitation by 2025," says Idrissa Doucouhre, the chief executive of the Africa Regional Center for Water and Sanitation.
The Liberian government was represented by Moses Massah, a program specialist on energy and the environment at UNDP, who says that fragmentation among the five agencies responsible for WASH issues has been a challenge.
"There are frantic efforts to ensure water and sanitation issues are resolved by the establishment of a water supply and sanitation commission," he says. This new commission would be established by presidential decree and form part of the government's Poverty Reduction Strategy.
But for Liberia to put up a good fight against urbanization and the associated water and sanitation problems, much more money is needed.
"We are talking about millions of dollars, more money," says Massah.
And with that, Massah finishes his presentation. All are clapping for Liberia, a country that may lead the world in creating sound water and sanitation policies--but may lead in policy only. I can't help but think about the many Liberian children who wake up early to fetch water from hand pumps, and the many who have no access to safe drinking water at all.