Charity Atter’s maid, Eva Tetteh, lowers a bucket deep into a well and waits about two minutes for the water to collect inside. Atter, a 37-year-old widow who lives in one of the fast-growing suburbs of Accra, Ghana’s capital, has been relying on well water for three years. “The water situation we’re facing here is a very difficult problem,” she says as she tends customers at her vegetable store in front of her house.
Water—or the lack of it—is one of the biggest issues facing urban Africa, which will see a 66 percent population increase to 1.2 billion people by 2050, according to the United Nations. Although water shortages have long plagued parts of the continent, they’ve become the potential killer of Africa’s economic takeoff. Ghana’s $35 billion economy, whose estimated growth of 8 percent in 2013 would outpace the sub-Saharan African average for a sixth straight year, cannot continue at that rate without a modern water network.
Ghana has had peaceful, democratic elections since 1992 and derives its economic strength from gold, cocoa, and oil. Yet in a speech on March 6, Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama acknowledged that Ghana is “burdened with a major energy and water crisis.” The country’s network of aging water pipes, some of which date back to 1914, does not reach Accra’s expanding and crowded outer suburbs. “Supply cannot meet the increasing demand,” says Kweku Botwe, acting managing director of state-owned Ghana Water. “Investment had stagnated so much over the past 40 to 50 years that you’re no more dealing with the urgent situation, but with the emergency.” Ghana Water can’t account for 55 percent of the water it produces, adds Botwe, because Ghanaians illegally siphon water from its pipes, and decrepit pipes damaged by erosion and construction often burst.
The shortage is compounded by a nationwide crisis in electricity production that started when the West African Gas Pipeline broke down last August. That sharply reduced the natural gas available to fire thermal power plants. The water company needs electricity to operate its treatment facilities.
To get water for their operations, companies often pay private water haulers up to 11 times what Ghana Water charges, according to Robert Darko Osei, a research fellow at the University of Ghana’s Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research. Ayrton Drug Manufacturing bought 12,000 gallons from tanker trucks for 900 cedis ($486) in February, says Chief Accountant Joseph Yaro Abaah. “When water doesn’t run for some time, we fall on tanker supplies to feed our factory,” he says. Osei says the water crisis is already hurting gross domestic product: With no solution in sight, it’s hard to estimate what the ultimate impact will be.
Almost a quarter of greater Accra’s population of 4 million doesn’t get water from the tap, according to Patrick Apoya, a consultant with the Accra-based Coalition of NGOs in Water and Sanitation. Nationally, that figure is 37 percent. While most Accra neighborhoods hooked up to the utility are supposed to get water pumped into their homes about three times a week, poor infrastructure and unreliable electricity sometimes keep that from happening.
Charity Atter pays a private supplier 35 cedis every three days to fill a water storage tank at her home. It’s a backup to the well, which runs low in the dry season. Atter says she pays a shopkeeper 2 cedis a day for purified drinking water. Water delivered to neighborhoods by private operators of tanker-trucks may be contaminated and lead to diseases such as cholera, which killed 31 people in the city last year, says Apoya.
Mohammed Dauda, a driver for a pharmacy in Accra, migrated to the region in 2005 to seek work. The father of six lives in a three-bedroom house without pipe-borne water, he says. He and his family use well water for bathing, washing, and cooking, spending 2 cedis a day on water for drinking, which comes in sealed plastic bags that hold 500 milliliters (0.13 gallons) each. Because they lack water to flush their toilet, Dauda’s family uses a public stall, paying 0.80 cedis per use.
“Without a regular flow of water it is difficult to use the water closet; we’d have to buy Poly Tank water at these times that the well is not flowing,” says Dauda, 48, using the common brand name for water that comes in plastic containers. “We are not happy with using well water for cooking because you can’t guarantee it’s kept from pollutants. I wish we had money like the rich to depend solely on Poly Tank water.”
The lack of water in Accra affects women and children most, says Ibrahim Musah, the head of policy and partnership at nonprofit WaterAid Ghana. At Nima, Chorkor, and Mamobi, all Accra suburbs where most households are not connected to the utility, the women and children wake up early in the morning because it takes up to an hour to fetch water from a public pipe stand or well. “The children are late for school, and it affects their performance,” says Musah. Women, who often prepare food for a living, may struggle to be ready for their customers: “That means her livelihood is affected; if she has children, then there is difficulty looking after them.”
Ghana Water is working with foreign investors, including Denys, a Belgian company that’s building a €341 million ($438 million) treatment plant, and Befesa Agua, a Spanish-Ghanaian company spending $115 million on a desalination plant. The long-term success of Ghana’s economy may depend on these efforts.