The Guma Problem: Some Solutions

8 September 2006 at 22:40 | 1787 views

"Developing a “Solid Proof Plan” requires time and effort. So what is being proposed below for Water represents conceptual plans based on the author’s current knowledge. Sierra Leoneans, including myself, are in agreement of the need for improvements in the infrastructure in Sierra Leone. However, any plans proposed cannot be done in isolation. A lot of projects have been or are being implemented in Sierra Leone and these projects need to be taken into consideration before developing any new solutions."

By Samuel O. Atere-Roberts, P.E.(Professional Engineer).

The following analysis and recommendations represents a contribution to the Town Hall Meeting held in Maryland, USA on August 12,2006 to discuss the Water, Power and Sanitation problems in Freetown, Sierra Leone. One of the questions at the Town Hall Meeting dealt with identifying a “Solid Proof” Plan for the problems associated with water, power and light problems in Freetown. This article addresses the water problem only.

Developing a “Solid Proof Plan” requires time and effort. So what is being proposed below for Water represents conceptual plans based on the author’s current knowledge. Sierra Leoneans, including myself, are in agreement of the need for improvements in the infrastructure in Sierra Leone. However, any plans proposed cannot be done in isolation. A lot of projects have been or are being implemented in Sierra Leone and these projects need to be taken into consideration before developing any new solutions.


The current problem with the low water level in the Guma Reservoir is a short-term problem that hopefully will be solved by mother nature as the rains come. However, the larger medium and long-term problems for providing water to the Citizens of Freetown will require a multi-faceted approach that involves both technical solutions and public involvement. Without going through an extensive discussion, the following are the four primary challenges for providing adequate water to the citizens of Freetown:

1. Explosive Population Growth in Freetown exceeding the combined water treatment and distribution capacity of the Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC).
2. Public attitude towards paying for water services and the need to educate the masses on the full cost of storing, treating and distributing clean water to the Citizens of Freetown
3. Financial Management of the GVWC and its ability to recover the full cost of providing water to residents of Freetown.
4. Deforestation affecting the quality and quantity of water accumulated in the reservoirs managed by GVWC (primarily Guma and Kongo)

Explosive Population Growth
For a Parastatal like GVWC to operate at a minimum at break-even basis, a long term Master Plan is a necessary prerequisite to ensure that adequate storage, treatment and distribution capacity exists to meet demand growth from population increases. Of course no one anticipated the mass migration to Freetown caused by the war. The following statistics gives you an idea of the current problems GVWC faces to meet current demands.

Original Capacity of Guma Dam and Treatment Works in 1967 = 17 mgd

Estimated Population of Freetown in 1968 = 350,000 people

Current Capacity of Guma Valley Treatment Works = 26 mgd (after $36M World Bank Funded Project completed in 2003)

Estimated Population of Freetown in 2006 (World Bank estimate) 2,000,000 people

Estimated Needed Capacity in 2006 = 100 mgd

Note: mgd = million gallons per day

Using the original water plant capacity of 17 mgd and population of 350,000 in 1968, this translates to an average water usage of roughly 50 gallons per day per person (gal/dp). This sounds reasonable when you consider that in the USA water treatment plants are designed for an average water usage of about 170 gallons per day per person. So assuming the same 50 (gal/dp), it is estimated that in 2006, the combined water treatment plant capacity needed will be approximately 100 mgd. Currently the combined water treatment capacity provided by GVWC is about 26 mgd, resulting in a shortfall of about 74 mgd.

This may look like a very high shortfall. So what are the options for meeting that shortfall? The following represents “Conceptual Plans” for addressing the water demand caused by population explosion
1. Expand Capacity of Water Treatment Plant - This option is not feasible in the short or medium term because the funds are not there to support it.
2. Reduce demand by reducing the population in Freetown - This is a viable alternative by creating conducive conditions (infrastructure and jobs) for those that have moved from the provinces to go back so that Freetown’s population will get back to a manageable level.
3. Reduce demand by reducing the average water use per person from the estimated 50 (gal/dp). to something smaller. This alternative is being implemented without choice because if GVWC is distributing 26 mgd to a population of 2 million, then this is an equivalent water usage of about 14 (gal/dp). This average use also does not take into consideration other water demand from Industries like building construction and bottling. Therefore, GVWC should educate the citizens more about conservation especially with the recent droughts that caused the water level to drop to historical levels.

From a master planning perspective, GVWC will eventually have to address the long-term needs of population growth even if some current residents go back to the provinces. Meeting future water demand projections will require the development of new water sources and the construction of new water treatment plants and additional distribution systems. In 1984, a preliminary study was performed by GVWC to design and construct a Dam on the Orogu River with a Water Treatment Plant constructed at Allen Town. That project was estimated to provide an additional capacity of 53 mgd and would have cost $103 million (1984 $). So a technical solution exists for future capacity, but obtaining funding for such a project, considering the current problems with Guma receiving full-cost of current service is a big problem.

Public Attitude Towards Paying For Water Services

This is one of the most challenging of all problems that need to be fixed by GVWC if it (or any Private Company) is to survive in providing water to citizens of Freetown. It is reasonable to assume that generally, the majority of the residents of Freetown do not realize that there is a cost associated with the storage, treatment and distribution of water. Growing up in Freetown with public taps, it is understandable to see why some people will find it difficult to pay for water delivered. The following is a quote from a World Bank Project Appraisal Document relating to the last Water Infrastructure Project.

“Currently, less than 30% o f consumers pay their bills. Consumers paying at the general water rate presently owe Le9 billion or about US$3.2 million, with commercial consumers and the Government owing Le12 billion or US$4.3 million and Le4.5 billion or US$1.6 million, respectively, totaling Le 25.5 billion or US$9.1 million”

How do you expect GVWC to be financially secure when you have Government, Commercial and residential customers owing the Authority $9 million! GVWC is aware of the need to address this problem with collecting fees from customers and they have been trying to improve their collection rates from consumers. The link below provides some information on what they have been doing and so far has been unsuccessful. The problem with collecting fees and the large number of illegal connections makes it even more difficult for GVWC to be self-sustaining
So what are “Conceptual Plans” for addressing this problem on collecting fees?

GVWC should develop a campaign to educate consumers on the process it takes to deliver water to their taps and the cost to do it. They can develop a unit cost that says it costs so many Leones per gallon to treat water (operations, maintenance and interests on outstanding debts) and compare it with the amount they are currently receiving from consumers. For them to continue providing service they need to at least break even. If they currently only recover 30% of bills sent, depending on their expenses, a recovery of less than 100% may even cause them to break even or become profitable. One other major issue that will affect GVWC’s income is how much of the treated water distributed end up at illegal connections.

GVWC should consider subcontracting to a Private Company responsible for collecting fees from GVWC customers. GVWC can then focus on their core service of storing, treating and distributing water. If they can increase collections using a Private Company (with full backing of the law to prosecute defaulters), they will be able to increase their Financial Ratings and be in a position to go out for future financing to expand capacity.

Financial Management Of The GVWC

In order for GVWC to break-even or even make a profit, they have to operate as a business. The cost for providing services should be supported with the revenues from consumers. It seems that this has been a problem with GVWC and was one of the reasons that the World Bank rated the $36 million Water Infrastructure Project completed in 2003 as been unsustainable. Currently, the World Bank Power and Water Project have funding to address this issue. The total amount for this project is $2.6M consisting of the following activities:

Management Consulting Contract - $1.0M
GVWC Water Tariff Study - $0.15M
Civil Works - $1.0M
Training of GVWC Staff - $0.2M
Equipment - $0.25M

Based on information from World Bank documents, the Management Contract with GVWC is for $1.0M (Price Waterhouse Coopers- Africa) over 3 years to help reform GVWC. Although the cost seems high, this is one feasible approach to reforming GVWC. If GVWC can be self-sustaining after this contract, with even some profits, I think private investors (both local and international) may be interested in putting their money to form a "Public-Private Sector" partnership to operate GVWC. GVWC through loans guaranteed by the Government has implemented a significant amount of capital projects over the last 10 years for them to just sell off to a "Private Company" most likely from abroad. From a practical perspective, GVWC is here to stay, but they have to be reformed to operate as a business and this $1.0M project is intended to achieve that goal. The major challenge will be to get the population, Government and Commercial consumers to accept that water is a service and it has to be paid for GVWC to deliver.

So my recommendation for the above is to stay the course with implementing the Reform and see how much GVWC can increase its collection after this World Bank project. If this is not successful, then they should consider sub-contracting to a Private Collection Company.


The solution to this problem is self-explanatory. The burning down of trees as a source for fuel is having a significant impact on the catchment areas that drains rainfall into our water reservoirs (Guma, Kongo, etc). By depleting these areas of the natural forest, evaporation reduces the amount of water draining to the reservoirs. The exposed area also contributes to sediment erosion that can cause the reservoir to fill up with sediments. Accumulated sediments will reduce the water storage of the reservoirs. So what are the “Conceptual Plans” to address this issue? Well in this case this is more of a solid plan that people can take to the bank. First and foremost, the citizens should stop burning down the trees in the catchment areas surrounding our water sources. New trees should be planted all around the catchment’s areas draining to our water sources to address past burning practices. The Ministry of Planning can also play a significant role in regulating the haphazard way buildings are being constructed all over Freetown.

© 2006

Photo: Guma dam

* Samuel Atere-Roberts, P.E. is a Professional Engineer
based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA and has been in the Consulting Business for 24 years with the last 18 years being in Atlanta, Georgia. He primarily does consulting services for Water and Wastewater Utilities,including Cities and Counties responsible for providing water and
wastewater services to their residents. He works with Brown and Caldwell Consulting Engineer( in the USA.

He graduated with a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria in 1982 and an M.S. in Environmental Health Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA in 1988.

A Response to the above from a Freetown-based engineer Andrew Keili:

A fairly good analysis but certain issues need to be recast and others probably put in the right perspective.Some of the statistics provided may also be on the spurious side. The following comments will hopefully asssist with making the analysis more realistic.

1.The population in Freetown is not 2 million. Freetown , including greater Freetown, has a population in the region of around 1.2 million. Although the population of Freetown was around 350,000 when Guma was designed, I believe it was designed for around 650,000 people.

2. I do not believe Guma was designed for 50 gallons per day per person as insinuated (probably wrong because of poor assumptions as stated in 1). Partly because of all of these assumptions, the water requirement for Freetown now has been estimated at 100 million gallons a day. This is way too ambitious. I do not think designing for 50 gallons a day per man is realistic. Also the design figure for the US at 170 gallons a day seems to me to be too ambitious (could very well be but my recollection is that average usage itself is more in the 80 gallons a day per man range).I believe that average usage for urban areas in Africa should be more in the 20 to 25 gallon a day per man range. I know there are losses but to suggest that Freetown needs 100 million gallons a day is too ambitious and unrealistic. It is therefore unrealistic to plan on meeting a shortfall of 74 milliom gallons a day.

3.Samuel is right about Orogu dam. It will however cost circa $300 to $400 million now and is certainly not on the cards at the moment.

4. A tarriff increase has been proposed and Governemnet is not averse to doing this. Plans are also afoot to extend the billing to more consumers, although part of the problem also is availability of the meters and the technical capacity to implement such a programme in a timely fashion. This will still leave a lot of the poor consumers unaffected.

5.I share his concern about the high consultancy component of the current World Bank programme for the sector involving Price Waterhouse. It could have been done by local consultants at a fraction of the cost and more money allocated to the works component.

6.The perceived privatisation programme for Guma does not involve selling off the utility as stated. It merely involves shoring up the management and commercialising certain aspects of the operation

Notwithstanding the above comments, I believe the analysis is fairly good in identifying the problems -poor infrastructure, deforestation, poor financial viability etc. There are also underlying reasons for all of these , some of which have been correctly identified. There is no doubt that a short to medium term solution involves having alternative impoundment areas, making Guma financially viable (shoring up managemnat and having good corporate governance will be of immense help but a huge injection of capital is also required). Losses are said to amount to 40% of what is pumped-these are largely due to poor connections and illegal connections-this should be addressed.

Paying for infrastructure services is not in my view a problem as long as the service is good, There is however need to stamp out illegal activities by the public with regards to facilities by utilities. This should be made a special crime-stealing elctricity cables, illegally abstracting electricity, cutting off watr pipes etc.The deforestation issue is a thorny one and affects not only Guma. Solutions to this eg. introducing modern forms of energy are in the new Energy Policy and should be implemented. Enforcement will help but in the long run altrenatives would have to be sought for fuelwood as a primary source of energy in urban areas.

The Sierra Leone Institution of Enginers considers the issue so serious that it plans a symposium on the water problem shortly.