Vanguard with 

Sierra Leone: Privatization, PRSP and water crisis: The poor can’t drink

 - Saturday 21 February 2009.

By Bai-Bai Sesay,PV Freetown Correspondent.

The end of Sierra Leone’s civil war has been a long one, fraught with hiccups, fits and starts along the way. The eleven year senseless and bloody conflict officially came to an end on 18th January 2002. Since then the country has been undergoing many reformations.

In 1999, when the Sierra Leonean civil war was at its peak and British troops were fighting on the ground, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) thought it necessary to urge the Sierra Leone government to privatize its fragile utility sectors. Then, in 2001, the IMF made the restructuring and privatization of public enterprises a condition for aid.

In 2002, the privatization programme was made a condition for Sierra Leone to join the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) debt relief programme. And among the sectors targeted was the Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC), with the aim of privatizing this important public enterprise.

The World Bank and IMF approved Sierra Leone’s Poverty Reduction Strategy and the proposed privatization of 24 enterprises. Whilst the Poverty Reduction Strategy does not make it explicitly clear, the GVWC is included in the 24 enterprises.

In the Capital Freetown, GVWC has been struggling to provide adequate pipe-borne water to meet the city’s needs. At present it does not reach even half of the population.

Residents in eastern Freetown interviewed by this press, say the supply of pipe-borne water is very unreliable, poor maintenance of pipes, unofficial payments of bills and that the acute shortage of water has forced their children out in the street as early as 5am to fetch water.

According to them, the spread of diseases such as measles, cholera and diarrhea are mainly as a result of the acute water shortage.

Mount Aureol Community is one of the affected remote areas in the city experiencing water shortages. The inhabitants say they lack access to affordable clean safe drinking water and the majority of them walk long distances to fetch water. Hawa Kamara, a nurse at the Mount Aureol Community Hospital pointed out that the problem of access to water to the community had caused diarrhea cases among under-five children.

A 40 year old gentleman, Abu Bakarr Kamara who earns his daily living through water wells in the community told this press that he supports water privatization in the country but cautioned, stating that, “Privatization is lacking sympathy or commitment to the needs of the citizenry, the vast majority who are poor”.

But while this situation is widely agreed to be unsustainable, there is far less agreement about what should be done about it and what form it should take.

The typical Sierra Leonean knows very little about the issue of privatization especially in the area of water supply and that is why they hardly comment on this sensitive issue. However, those who are knowledgeable believe there is a great need for the Guma Valley Water Company to be privatized in order to adequately handle the long-standing water shortage in the country

In his words, a spokesperson at the National Commission for Privatization (NCP) says one of the important things about GVWC is the fact that Guma is a natural monopoly. Government and NCP do not intend to change that position.

“We planned the issue of water privatization in our privatization strategy, giving a method approach and background to Guma Valley Water Company’s restructuring. It is really not full privatization as we are not selling the Company”, the spokesperson notes.

The problem of access to safe drinking water is a serious concern in the country. Two years ago, people in central Freetown had to move to hill top areas in the outskirts of the city to get well water. The scarcity was so serious that a bucket of well water was sold ten times the previous price.

The scarcity of water in Freetown has been a debating issue and many Sierra Leoneans believe that GVWC has been known to be a poorly performing public company in need of investment and reform.

The big questions Sierra Leoneans are asking are: Will the poor ever have access to safe drinking water? Should GVWC be privatized? Will the private sector behave likewise, as they often do when a sachet of water shoots up during water crises?

The water scarcity of the recent months and the merciless hike in the prices of private sector marketed water is an example of the evils advocate of this argument advance against privatization.

Salamatu Kamara who earns her daily living by selling plastic water confessed to this press that a few months ago, she made a huge profit when there was water scarcity in the city.

“I sold pure water when the prices shoot up”, she confessed.

Sorie Kanu, a daily wage worker says Sierra Leoneans are in the habit of increasing prices during crises. “Such evil things will definitely make poor ordinary Sierra Leoneans suffer,” he states.

Explaining about the Guma dam, a senior official of GVWC - said” the dam is full and there is no need for water rationing."

He pointed out that although the level of the lake had improved as a result of the rainy season, “the dam is relatively low in comparison with previous years”.

Highlighting the level of the lake in three consecutive years, he disclosed that on the 7th August 2004, the dam level was 828.54ft on the same date last year and this year the levels were 841.99 and 825.46 respectively.

He disclosed that an extra 36.52ft of water in the reservoir was requiring for the dam to be full.

Giving a brief history of the dam, a senior technical assistant attached to the dam, explained that the dam was commissioned on 4th February 1967 with a 5.2 billion gallon capacity.

He disclosed that when the dam reached its brim on a normal basis, “19 million gallons are sent to the city on a daily basis."

"At present, he noted, “We are supplying 13 million gallons daily. The reason for not supplying the standard amount, he disclosed, was because the dam is not yet full, we have to ration’, he said.

The population of Sierra Leone which was 2.2 million in the 70s is now over 5 million which means that far too many people are scrambling for scarece safe drinking water.

Mohamed Abu Sesay, a Financial Analyst attached at the National Commission for Privatization (NCP) says “Privatization of water will definitely increase the supply of water but many low income earners will not afford the cost of meter water because of poor economic resources”.

Bankole Johnson, a retired Senior Civil Servant who had worked with the Water Sector Department of the Ministry of Energy and Power, also added his voice saying “majority who are poor will find it difficult to pay for water meters or water connection but the idea of privatization is a good thing in a country. It will make water affordable to all and the rate of water scarcity will definitely reduce”.

But while there is some support within Sierra Leone’s government for water privatization in the Guma Valley Water Company, the policy is not widely “owned”.

Interviewees within Sierra Leone’s government described the government as “reaching to” initiatives and ideas originated from the donor community.

Touching on the consumer’s rights and concern about water privatization, a spokesperson at NCP explained that before the privatization programme commenced, NCP held workshops which discussed with wide-ranging groups of stake holders, including the water sector, their respective concerns.

“The privatization programme prides itself to the fact that it takes a position which caters for the concerns of low income people ensuring greatest access to safe clean drinking water,” he disclosed.

But Alhaji Kanu, a lecturer at the Milton Margai College of Education and Technology (MMCE& T) questioned the need for privatizing the GVWC when the private sector has shown no sympathy in times of shortages but exacerbate such shortage instead by creating an artificial crises situation to maximize profit.

NCP’s Financial Analyst, Mohamed Sesay also said that one of the key processes about privatization will be the establishment of a regulatory framework to address tariffs and other concerns especially those relating to low income consumers.

Officials from the water company were not even aware that the National Commission for Privatization (NCP) is now tasked with acting as a prudent shareholder of Guma Valley. There was even less engagement within a wider group or stakeholders, including Parliament and civil society organizations.

It is reported that there has been no discussion of the World Bank funded draft water and sanitation policy. Local civil society organizations in the country also complained that “issues are not being pushed out to the public for a debate “but are being driven by donors and small number of staff in NCP who believe they have the mandate to privatize”.

Sierra Leone is classed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as one of the poorest countries in the world. The life expectancy is under 35 years of age while 57 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Access to clean water is estimated to be between 57 percent and 28 percent. 40 percent of children under five suffer for diarrhea as a result of unsafe drinking water. Corruption is the order of the day, though an Anti- Corruption Commission (ACC) has been set up by the government with the help of the British Government to try corrupt government, private and public officials of corrupt practices in the country.

Apart from the capital Freetown, most of the remote rural areas, people drink on treated water either from wells or from rivers which they use as toilets, washing their clothes and bathing.

An International Non Governmental Organization Plan International-Sierra Leone is boring many wells fitted with pumps, especially in schools, for poor people living in remote rural areas where access to safe drinking water is difficult.

Media and Communications Officer, Plan International, pointed out that their organization funded projects such as the construction of water wells especially in rural areas where pipe-borne water is not available.

“People now see this venture of constructing wells as a way of alleviating their plights for walking long distances in search of water in polluted streams and water” adding that “many people in poor rural communities where the health and hygiene education are taking place are now aware of water borne diseases and how to overcome them”, he opined.

A popular medical doctor attached at the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation Dr Edward Nahim told this press that most of the major cities in the country including capital Freetown are affected of the acute shortage of drinking water. Water borne diseases, he said, “Kills far more people than Malaria and HIV/AIDS combine where several millions of dollars are funded.

“Far too much attention and money to HIV/AIDS and recently Malaria has joined the AIDS pandemic but water borne disease may have more patients than HIV/AIDS and Malaria put together”, he disclosed.

A local journalist N’fa Turay emphasized that moves to privatize the national pipe borne water resource in Freetown, ‘Guma Valley’ by the National Commission for Privatization should be critically assessed on its impact, positively or negatively on the populace.

“Indeed, there is a steady growth of the population in urban Freetown but privatizing Guma inoder to be able to reach the demand supply will be counter productive, as people may be exploited by the future private owner/s whose aims is to maximize profit”.

“Government should therefore continue to monitor the administration of Guma though it may contract experts to run the facilities and not leaving it wholly in the hands of private firms. Government must take into consideration the employment rate in the country and the growing poverty”, he maintained.

“A private firm that takes Guma will only supply those that can afford to pay and leaving the rest to wallow in swamp water, thus given negative impact on the political administration; as people may demand for protection or change of political administration”.

“Water privatization to a large extent will make people get affordable clean safe drinking water but on the other hand, it will make it very expensive for the low income earners to be able to pay for its services,” he explained.

*Bai-Bai Sesay(photo) is a Sierra Leone-based journalist and acting editor of the Independent Observer Newspaper in Freetown. He can be reached at baibaisesay@yahoo.com or baibaisesay@hotmail.com.