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In Africa, corruption dirties the water

A Pokomo woman carries water back to her village in the Tana Delta, Kenya Siegfried Modola/IRIN
A Pokomo woman carries water back to her village in the Tana Delta, Kenya (Jan 2013)
Collusion among government officials, unscrupulous water vendors and large farm owners results in diverted water supply lines, misappropriated funds, and failure to implement laws on protecting water sources from encroachment and pollution. These are just some of the ways corruption is denying millions of poor people in Africa access to safe and clean drinking water, experts say.

“The impact of corruption on the water sector is manifested by lack of sustainable delivery, inequitable investment and targeting of resources, and limited participation of affected communities in developmental processes,” Bethlehem Mengistu, regional advocacy manager at the NGO Water Aid, told IRIN.

In a 2010 report, the UN World Health Organization (WHO), estimated that around 780 million people around the world, including 343 million in Africa, did not have access to an “improved drinking water supply”, meaning a running water network, public drinking fountains, protected wells or springs, or rainwater tanks.

Globally, an estimated 3 million deaths result from water-borne diseases annually, according to WHO.

According to the World Bank, 20 to 40 percent of public finances worldwide meant for the water sector are lost due to corruption and dishonest practices.

Denied water

In Africa, climate change and burgeoning populations have caused competition over scarce water resources, at times leading to communal conflicts. Experts say corruption exacerbates Africa’s water problems.

“More specific examples of how corruption denies poor people access to water include situations where wealthy or politically connected people use their position to unduly influence the location of a water source at the cost of the poor,” Maria Jacobson, programme officer at the UN Development Programme’s Water Governance Facility (WGF), at the Stockholm International Water Institute, told IRIN.

According to Jacobson, the poor “don’t have the resources to participate in a corrupt system that relies on bribes”, and therefore “lose out in terms of poor water services”.

“Poor people also have few, if any, means to enter alternative markets when corrupt public systems fail to deliver,” she added.

A 2008 report by Transparency International (TI), a global corruption watchdog, estimated that corruption denied more than a billion people access to safe drinking water and kept 2.8 billion from accessing sanitation services.

In Tanzania, a 2012 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Water Alternatives revealed that a large-scale agricultural and livestock farming project - on a 14 hectare plot of land in the Iringa area leased out by the government to a private company, allegedly without following the legal process - led to contamination of nearby water sources serving some 45,000 people.

The study, conducted by the Italian NGO ACRA (Cooperazione Rurale in Africa e America Latina), said fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste from the farm washed downstream to the water points.

“While there are mechanisms within Tanzanian law to limit potentially polluting activities, establish protected zones around water sources, and empower water-user organizations to exercise control over activities that damage the quality of water, in practice, in the Iringa region, these were not effective as many procedures were not followed,” the authors said.

In developing countries, corruption is estimated to, according to the TI report, “raise the price for connecting a household to a water network by as much as 30 per cent,” which leads to an inflation of the “overall costs for achieving the Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation, cornerstones for remedying the global water crisis, by more than US$48 billion.”

In Kenya, for instance, poor people in the capital, Nairobi, pay 10 times more for water than their wealthier counterparts, according to TI.


The incompetence of national and local authorities, too, is to blame.

“Because the revenue that is collected from the water sector is not ring-fenced, it is not ploughed back in to improve services. It is not uncommon to see leaking and broken pipes and water pumps in many parts of urban and rural regions of Africa countries,” Barrack Luseno, a Kenyan water sector analyst, told IRIN.

In Malawi, according to the TI report, water collection points constructed between 1988 and 2002 were mostly placed in areas where such facilities already existed, largely due to “political patronage.”

“The key drivers [of corruption] are limitations of participation, transparency and accountability. It is usually the case that the details of sector resourcing is confined, there is limited participation of right holders in critical issues of development, and the checks and balances to key decision-making roles are weak,” Water Aid’s Mengistu added.

Water Aid recommended in a 2012 report that governments invest more but also put measures in place to fight the runaway graft in the water sector.

“Governments and donors must ensure that rigorous checks and balances are in place to tackle corruption and minimize waste,” said the report.

"Poor people also have few, if any, means to enter alternative markets when corrupt public systems fail to deliver"
It gave the example of the Ugandan government and donors moving quickly to tackle the misappropriation of funds that occurred in the country’s water sector at the end of 2012.

“There is a continuing need to enhance the accountability of governments in delivering services and fulfilling their obligations as duty bearers. Community service organisations have an important role to play as watchdogs to ensure rights holders receive their entitlements,” it added.

Involving communities in decision making and putting more investment into the sector are some of the ways to ensure access for more people.

“We must ensure integrity by ensuring more openness in dealing with issues of land and water. Remember, for rural communities, access to land is commensurate with access to water. This explains the conflict between pastoralist and farming communities,” Luseno added.


Some have advocated for the privatization of water services. In Africa, Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire are cited as privatization success stories. But critics, fearing increased prices, say that putting life-sustaining resource in the hands of for-profit companies would be dangerous.

Karen Bakers says in her 2010 book Privatizing Water: Governance failure and the world’s urban water crisis, “an increasing consensus has developed that private sector participation in water supply will not be able, as some proponents has hoped, to succeed where governments have failed to provide water for all.”

According to the WGF, the ideological debates over the privatization of water services “do not benefit those lacking sustainable drinking water supply and sanitation.”

The World Bank estimates by 2007, some 160 million people were being served by private water operators globally. About 50 million of these people are served by public-private partnerships that can be considered successful.

But privatization has produced different results for different countries.

In Mozambique, a World Bank study revealed that access to water in the capital, Maputo, had improved since the delegation of water management to private companies.

In Uganda, water sector reforms included more funding from the government and better management of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation - a privately managed but publicly owned water company responsible for the 15 largest cities in the country. According to Water Aid, in just five years after the reforms, it had transformed from being a highly inefficient, underperforming and loss-making body to a healthy and financially sustainable public corporation. Service coverage grew from 48 to 74 percent between 1998 and 2010. The same period witnessed household connections increase from 53,000 to 246,259.

Still, corruption has been a challenge.

“In a study of corruption in Uganda’s water sector, private contractors estimated the average bribe related to a contract award to be 10 percent [of the total cost]. The same study showed that 46 per cent of all urban water consumers had paid extra money for connections,” said WGF’s Jacobson.

Kenya, on the other hand, abandoned plans to open up Nairobi’s water supply to private companies, fearing it would inflate water prices.

In 2008, Mali experienced anti-privatization protests that left one person dead and five others injured in the capital, Bamako.

In Ghana, water tariffs increased by 80 percent after privatization, and a third of the country’s population still has no access to safe and clean water.

“Experience suggests that to make private sector engagement work, effective government regulatory powers are required,” says WGF.

Ending corruption in the sector, experts like WGF’s Jacobson say, would require diagnosing the effectiveness of anticorruption interventions, creating legal and financial reforms, and building public sector capacity.


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:

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