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Response to Accra's looming water crisis could decide next president

Waiting for water. The taps have been off in Accra for so long people have abandoned the queue.
(Evans Mensah/IRIN)

General elections in Ghana will not be held until December but with the rapid collapse of the water system in the capital Accra and an estimated 84,000 Ghanaians dying each year from diseases related to poor water quality, observers say water has already become the central election issue.

“All the presidential candidates for the various political parties have made water a key part of their message,” Ransford Gyampo a political scientist at the University of Ghana told IRIN. “The fate of the current government rests on the early, effective resolution of the water crisis.”

Taps have gone dry in recent weeks in several of Accra’s neighbourhoods and the Ghana Water Company says it is no longer able to supply even half of the 150 million gallons of water that people in the capital require each day.

The water company also estimates that a US $2 billion investment is needed to resolve the water problem.

The opposition claims the government is not making a serious effort to find the money, drawing attention to two presidential jets it intends to procure at a cost of some US $105 million. “The millions of dollars they intend to spend to buy the jets can provide potable water for at least one constituency in the capital,” Korku Ayidoho spokesman for the National Democratic Congress, the main opposition party told IRIN.

Such statements resonate with voters. “[In my neighbourhood] I have not had water for the past two weeks,” an irate man, John Asamoah, told IRIN while waiting for water in a long queue. “I have been standing here for three hours. I am fed up. The government must act now!”

Huge potential

The sad truth is that Accra could have an abundant water supply from the nearby Volta Lake, the world's largest manmade body of fresh water. But many of the pipes delivering the water to the city are cracked and broken and the government has done little to repair them.

As a result many residents resort to polluted rivers and ponds, or hand-dug wells where the water is often unclean.

The government acknowledges the problem. “It’s about aging infrastructure, lack of investment and waste,” the minister for water resources, Boniface Abubakar Saddique told IRIN

To raise more capital for infrastructure the ministry restructured the way it managed water in 2006, handing control over to a private company, Aqua Vitens Rand Limited.

Despite massive opposition to the privatisation move from the Coalition Against Water Privatisation, the plan did have appeal. Aqua Vitens would get a percentage of profits from the water it supplied while the government would get funds to rehabilitate and expand the system.

Two years later, however, fewer people in Accra can access water than when the system was government-run plus the company has done a poor job of recouping costs.

Close to half of water consumed in Ghana is not paid for, Aqua Vitens spokesman Kwaku Sakyi Addo told IRIN. “It’s mainly because of illegal connections,” he said, but also because “we don’t have enough meters in people’s homes to bill consumers… We ordered some over a year ago but procurement difficulties have delayed their arrival.”

Billing has increased by 25 percent since the company took over and revenue is up by 20 percent. Still, with leakages and pipe bursts, “much of the processed water is not accounted for and we are not able to get the needed revenue for government to reinvest,” the spokesman said.

No policy

Privatisation is no longer a solution that the either government or the opposition like to talk about but what is surprising is that neither offer clear alternatives.

“We acknowledge [water] has not engaged our attention but that is why the timing of the crisis in Accra is very important,” Ayidoho, the opposition spokesman, said. “We intend to make full political capital of this and highlight our alternatives when we prepare our manifesto.”

For Steve Manteaw, a representative of the non-governmental organisation ISODEC (Integrated Social Development Centre), “Its sad politicians constantly spew rhetoric on providing potable water to citizens but never offer concrete alternatives.”

He too says he hopes that the current water crisis will serve as a wake-up call to the country’s leaders. “Its time the media and civil society go beyond the statements they make on the political platforms and explore ways to find a non-political solution,” he said.

The government has taken the emergency measure of drilling 13 mechanized boreholes in the worst affected areas, and they are set to start pumping water in April but none of the water experts IRIN spoke with said they considered that to be a solution for the long term.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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