Ghana’s Capital Dries Up as Water System Lags Oil-Led Boom

Charity Atter’s maid, Eva, lowers a bucket tied with a yellow rope 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 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 said as she tended customers at a vegetable store in front of her house in Accra. “It’s just that there is no alternative.”

Ghana’s $35 billion economy, where growth is set to outpace the sub-Saharan African average for a sixth year, has attracted new residents to the capital city with the promise of jobs and education. Many arrivals find Accra’s crumbling infrastructure hasn’t kept up as water shortages routinely leave taps dry.

“Supply cannot meet the increasing demand,” Kweku Botwe, acting managing director of the state-owned Ghana Water Co., said in an interview. “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.” The company can’t account for 55 percent of the water it produces, he said.

The problem is compounded by a nationwide crisis in electricity production, which the water company needs to operate its treatment plants, and broken equipment that can take months to repair, he said. President John Dramani Mahama said in a speech on March 6 in Accra that the country is “burdened with a major energy and water crisis.”

‘Shining Star’

Marking its 56th anniversary of independence, Mahama said Ghana is seen as “Africa’s shining star.” While other nations were mired in wars, the country “was busy building institutions to reinforce our democracy,” he said.

Ghana’s democratic label is limited to its achievements in political stability, rather than extending to meeting the needs of its people, said Robert Darko Osei, a research fellow at the University of Ghana’s Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research.

“A lot more is expected of the nation in the area of providing basic amenities,” he said. The lack of water is forcing manufacturers to cut jobs as they halt production and pay more to get water from sources other than the state utility, Osei said. Neither the electricity nor the water companies are being properly managed by the government, he said.

“Can we say as a nation that we are seriously confronting our water and energy problems?” Osei asked. “I am not sure.”

Human Development

Water issues are at the forefront of challenges facing urban Africa, which will see a 66 percent population increase to 1.2 billion people by 2050, according to the United Nations. The region is underperforming the UN’s Millennium Development Goals on water and sanitation, said Ibrahim Musah, the Accra-based head of policy and partnership at nonprofit WaterAid.

Ghana ranks 135 out of 186 countries on the 2012 UN’s Human Development Index, which measures indicators such as life expectancy, education and income. Ghana places behind countries including Cape Verde, Namibia and Botswana.

Almost a quarter of the city’s population doesn’t get water directly from taps, according to Patrick Apoyah, a consultant with the Accra-based Coalition of NGOs in Water and Sanitation. Nationally, the figure is 37 percent, Botwe said.

Suburban Sprawl

While most Accra neighborhoods that are attached to the utility’s network are supposed to get water pumped in about three times a week, Botwe said poor infrastructure and unreliable electricity keep that from always happening. The pace of growth means that houses are being built in sprawling suburbs like Atter’s neighborhood of Adenta, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the city center, where pipelines don’t reach.

She pays 35 cedis ($18) every three days to fill a water-storage tank at her home. It’s a backup to the well, which runs low during the dry season. Another 2 cedis is paid each day for purified water for drinking, said Atter, who arrived 10 years ago from the Eastern region town of Akosombo.

Tanker-truck water may be contaminated and lead to diseases such as cholera, which killed 31 people in the city last year, Apoyah said.

“You see one tanker that can go and deliver drinking water to households,” he said. “The next trip, it is on its way to carry dam water to a construction site.”

Companies are also using tanker-supplied water. Ayrton Drug Manufacturing Ltd., a unit of Johannesburg-based Adcock Ingram Holdings Ltd., bought 12,000 gallons from tankers in February, said Chief Financial Officer Joseph Yaro Abaah.

“When water doesn’t run for some time we fall on tanker supplies to feed our first factory,” he said. The drug maker operates two factories in Accra.

Early Start

The shortage has been a boon for Hong Kong-based Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co.’s unit in the country, which operates a waste-management service. It has doubled its water-tanker vehicle network to 50 in the first two months of 2013, said Robert Coleman, an Accra-based company spokesman.

“We have demand we’re not able to meet,” he said in an interview last month. Sheila Eduaful, manager for the company’s cabin business, said tanker drivers start work by 4 a.m. each day, two hours earlier than they usually do.

The Ghana Water Co. is working with foreign investors to boost output, Botwe said. Denys NV of Belgium is building a 341 million-euro ($438 million) treatment plant, reservoir and intake pipes at Asutsuare in the Central region, which borders Greater Accra. Befesa Agua Ltd., a Spanish and Ghanaian company, is spending $115 million to desalinate 13 million gallons of water a day at the eastern suburb of Teshie, Botwe said.

A $273 million project to expand the treatment plant at Kpong in the east, with new transmission lines and a booster station, will add 40 million gallons daily to the city’s supply, he said.

Father of Six

Growth in Ghana, which the finance ministry forecasts at 8 percent this year, accelerated after the December 2010 start of oil exports. Suburbs began cropping up in areas far beyond the reach of the water company, Botwe said.

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 with his family and without pipe-borne water, he said in an interview in January.

They use well water for bathing, washing and cooking, spending 2.0 cedis a day on water for drinking in 30 plastic bags that hold 500 milliliters (0.13 gallons) each. Because of a lack of water to simply flush their toilet, Dauda’s family uses a public stall, paying 0.80 cedi per use.

“Without 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,” said Dauda, 48, using the common brand name for plastic water-storage 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 in this area to depend solely on Poly Tank water.”

Women, Children

Lack of water in Accra affects women and children most, Musah said. At Nima, Chorkor and Mamobi, all suburbs of the city where most households are not connected to the utility, they wake up early in the morning and can take an hour to fetch water for the family.

“The children are late for school and it affects their performance,” he said. Women who 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.”

Governments in Africa need to increase investment and build up the capacity of water companies with more staff and equipment, Musah said. Urban planning also should factor in utilities, Apoyah said.

“Water should always go ahead of residential and infrastructural development,” he said. “The areas that we are yet to even build, at the outskirts, water extension should have been there. The current situation where growth is leading the supply of water is not the best.”

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