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Slow progress in restoring water, electricity to Monrovia

[Liberia] Water sellers in Monrovia filling plastic jerry cans on their hand carts from a water tank in January 2005.
Water sellers in Monrovia (IRIN)

By night Monrovia hums to the sound of several thousand private generators. The noise has grown louder since the end of Liberia's civil war in August 2003, and the city's lights brighter.

But despite ambitious government plans to renovate the country's entire electricity supply system at an estimated cost of US$200 million, there is still no early prospect of restoring the city's main electricity supply.

The power system was knocked out in 1990, shortly after the conflict began.

Two years later, battle damage stopped the flow of water from the city's taps as well.

That left most of Monrovia's one million inhabitants dependent on polluted wells, purified water delivered by tanker truck, or jerrycans of water sold from handcarts in the street.

Most of Monrovia's water distribution pipes are so old, rusted and broken that the entire network will have to be ripped up and replaced before safe drinking water can start flowing through its taps again.

The hydro-electric dam on the Saint Paul river which once supplied Monrovia and much of the rest of Liberia with electricity, has suffered heavy damage and requires massive repairs which are likely to take three or four years.

And even if temporary diesel generators are rigged up to supply power to the capital, there is no longer any way to distribute it. Over the past decade looters have cut down most of Monrovia's electricity cables for sale as scrap metal.

Those who can afford the luxury of electric light invest in a private generator for their personal use.

And in this broken country where wages are low and corruption is rife, some manage to wangle a generator through their work.

Police chief suspended for stealing generator

The government's police chief, Chris Massaquoi, was suspended last week after diverting a US$20,000 generator that was meant to light up national police headquarters, for his personal use.

The UN agencies, Lebanese and Indian-owned trading companies and other large organisations have massive noisy brutes that can run several air conditioners and dozens of computers.

But most Liberians who are wealthy enough to put electricity into their homes make do with petrol-driven mini-generators costing US$100 to $150.

Known as "Tigers" after the brand name that has captured the local market, they are just powerful enough to run a fridge or television set and a handful of light bulbs.

Until the government is ready to provide electricity, we will use the Tiger generator," said Jeremy Sando, a resident in the western suburb of Paynesville. "It is quite cheap. It takes a gallon of gasoline to produce power for our television and light bulbs for about eight hours," he told IRIN.

But most of Monrovia's poor and unemployed inhabitants have to make do with paraffin lamps and candles.

That makes life tough for the youngsters who are once more back at school, but who have to do their homework during the hours of darkness.

"(There is) no light in the country and some of us cannot buy generators. That is why we normally revise our lessons under shop lights which run through the night until daybreak," said Junior Carr, a 14-year-old pupil.

Harry Greaves, an economic adviser to Gyude Bryant, the chairman of Liberia's transitional government, told IRIN that moves are already afoot to restore normal power supplies in Monrovia by bringing in private investors to repair and run the city's electricity network.

In the longer, term, he added, China is offering to renovate the Saint Paul hydro-electric dam, 17 km north and help Liberia rebuild a national grid.

Private contractors will supply electricity to Monrovia

Greaves said the government would launch a tender for private companies to generate and distribute power in Monrovia by the end of February.

"If the tender goes unhindered, by July or August we should have six to eight megawatts of electricity in Monrovia. By that time we also hope to tender for the provision of a 20 megawatt power system which will be enough to power the entire city," Greaves said.

"We hope to have more than one independent power producer to generate electricity," he added.

"While we are in the process of restoring minimum power supply, we have also to embark on negotiations with the People's Republic of China which has shown interest in rehabilitating the Saint Paul hydro-elecetric dam for a sustainable power supply," Greaves said.

Joseph Maya, the head of the state-run Liberia Electricity Corporation, said a team of Chinese engineers was due to arrive in Liberia by the end of March to carry out a technical assessment of the dam, which was built in the 1950s.

World Bank experts are also expected to come and assess Liberia's power needs shortly, he added.

"If we are looking at the whole electrical system in the country to be put into full operation, around US$200 million could be invested in the sector," Maya said.

Greaves said the government was aware of the need to replace the wrecked and looted power lines and transformers in Monrovia before mains electricity could be restored to the city, but he said the European Union had already agreed to pay for most of this work.

"According to our studies, the cost of rehabilitating the entire system of transmission lines in Monrovia would be about $13 million. The EU has already committed $8 million to that purpose and we will be looking for another $5 million….it is not possible for a private company to get involved in this transmission project," the government's economic adviser said.

Forgotten promises

When the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was set up in October 2003 to help disarm the warring factions in Liberia and put the country back on its feet, Jacques Klein, the UN Secretarary General's Special Representative in Liberia, promised to make the restoration of normal electricity and water supplies in Monrovia a top priority.

But more than a year later, little progress has been made and some Liberians think the authorities could have moved a lot faster.

Ian Yhap, a Liberian electrical engineer who has set up his own power company AIMS-AFIPCO, told IRIN that his firm had offered to invest US$25 million to install a power station in Monrovia and rehabilitate the city's electricity distribution in July last year, but its proposal had been turned down.

Yhap said his company would have rehabilitated the power lines at no cost to the government and would have sold its entire power output to the Liberia Electricity Corporation, which in turn would have billed consumers.

But he said the government had sidelined AIMS-AFIPCO in favour a more expensive project put forward by the UK-based generator rental company Aggreko.

Greaves brushed aside such criticisms, saying "When we open the tender, let them bid, because we want the best company that would provide electricity at a cheaper rate for the Liberian people."

The task of restoring water supplies of safe piped drinking water may prove cheaper than re-establishing mains electricity, but it will be no less problematic.

There are two main water pipelines into Monrovia from the White Plains water treatment station on the northern outskirts of the city.

However, only 200,000 people in the port suburb of Bushrod Island currently receive piped water in their homes.

No money to replace old water pipes

The local distribution network in Bushrod Island was renewed fairly recently, but elsewhere in the city, the water pipes are rusted and broken after 12 years of disuse and will have to be completely replaced.

A needs assessment document drawn up by the United Nations in February 2004 ahead of a major donor conference in New York, estimated that it would cost nearly US$12 million to restore running water to the whole of Monrovia.

Water engineers at the state-run Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation declined to estimate the exact cost of rehabilitating the capital's water supply, but they told IRIN that the cost would be huge and there was no money available to undertake the work.

The EU helped to repair the White Plains water works and provide emergency supplies of water to Monrovia immediately after the civil war ended, but it stopped financing water projects in the city a year ago.

Residents centre currently rely on water trucked to distribution tanks dotted around the city which were built by the EU. From there much of the water is brought to people's doorsteps in plastic jerrycans by water sellers pushing handcarts.

They sell the contents of a five-gallon (20 litre) jerrycan for five Liberian dollars (10 US cents). Since each cart carries about 20 jerrycans, this means that a water carrier can make about US$2 per day.

But Daniel Sonpon, who pushes a water cart in Monrovia, told IRIN it was a hard way to make a living.

"This is the only way for some of us to survive right now," he said. "It is a very difficult job. We show up at the reservoir as early as 5 am and sometimes, especially in the dry season, we stand in a long queue just to have water and sell it in town to homes and businesses."

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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