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July/August 2011
Vol. 36, No. 4


Africa: Water and water privatization

The following is based on this article in Pambazuka News (No. 533). Written by Jacques Cambon and translated from French by Odile Leclerc, it is part of a special issue on water and water privatization in Africa produced as a joint initiative of the Transnational Institute, Ritimo and Pambazuka News.

On July 29, 2010, the UN's General Assembly recognized "the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights."

But, according to the UNESCO/WHO 2010 report, 884 million people around the world (343 million are in Africa) do not have access to an "improved drinking water supply" and 2.6 billion people do not have access to "improved sanitation systems." Water-borne diseases (diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, polio, meningitis, hepatitis, etc) are the main cause of death in the world.

The world's water is not distributed evenly and global warming will exacerbate that fact by bringing more rain to polar, temperate and equatorial zones and less to tropical ones. Natural storage (glaciers, lakes, rivers, perennial water flows) is also scarcer in tropical areas, like much of Africa.
But a global population increase from 2.5 billion in 1950 to almost seven billion in 2010 and the globalization of lifestyles that consume vast amounts of water are even more problematic. Domestic water use (five liters per day for survival, 50 liters per day for a decent life, more than 500 liters per day to satisfy North American standards) is only 10 percent of the total water footprint, which includes water for food, goods, energy production, etc. On average, this footprint reaches 3,400 liters per day worldwide, varying from 6,800 liters per day in the United States to 1,850 liters per day in Ethiopia. The production of one kilogram of beef calls for 15,500 liters of water, one kilogram of chicken, for 3,900 liters and one kilogram of wheat, for 1,300 liters.

Urbanization is another key factor in the water crisis because it is much more difficult to supply water as a community grows and diversifies its activities. More than half the world's population now lives in urban areas, with increased water conveyance and distribution, as well as storage, pumping, and purification, needs.

In countries recently decolonized, where technical competence was scarce, these urban services have long been the responsibility of national utilities. The achievements of these utilities vary, but on the whole they have been quite poor, thanks to unfit and corrupt leaders, lack of supervision, shortage of maintenance equipment, insufficient funding and penniless consumers. From these deficiencies, multinational water companies have made a lot of profit, being able to say that better (private, of course) management of the water service would help put the situation back on its feet.

In the past, Africa has only marginally interested water multinationals. In the early 1990s, the increasing intervention of the World Bank and IMF forced developing countries to put in place structural adjustment policies. The consequent reduction in public spending and privatization of publicly held companies encouraged the privatization of drinking water distribution systems. This almost always led to a rate increase (up to 40 percent in Nairobi) without improving the service. Movements against water privatization across the continent led to the establishment of the African Water Network during the World Social Forum held in Nairobi.

In fact, privatization doesn't answer Africa's multiple water problems:

  • The water resources being exploited are insufficient, potential new resources are scarce, remote, and expensive to develop.
  • Equipment for the production, purification and storage is often in need of repair.
  • Distribution systems also networks are in need of costly repairs and extensions.
  • Purification networks (not including purification stations) are at best embryonic.
  • Public corporations' institutional flaws are just "the icing on the cake."

Water in Mombasa, Kenya

With a population of more than 3.3 million people, 60 percent of whom live below the poverty line, Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya, and the capital of the Coast Region. It is a major tourist destination as well as the main port of East Africa, where more than 10 million tons of merchandise transit annually. Fifty-two percent of the population has access to drinking water supplies, to which 16 percent of them are directly connected, and 36 percent get their water through public drinking fountains (PDF). The rest have to make do with water peddlers (whose costs can be as much as 10 percent higher than the PDFs). The remote two major existing supply installations, 215 kilometers for Mzima and 85 kilometers for Marere, are in ruins (built respectively in 1950 and 1920): 60 percent of the water is lost to leaks. The actual production capacity is 95,000 cubic meters per day (m3/d), but once we subtract the supply to industries and hotels (a priority), only 26,000 m3/d remain for 52 percent of the population (17 liters per day). The main consequences of this situation are the consumption of unsafe waters (wells, backwaters, water peddlers, etc) by the population, which brings inevitable sanitary and financial woes, limits to the development of economic activities (which in turn affect employment), and the priority given to production of water, which leads to a neglect of water purification, again with adverse consequences in terms of public health.

Renovating the existing infrastructure and increasing its capacity to 260,000 m3/d would cost about US$1 billion. With the World Bank's terms of lending, a price increase to 50 Kenyan shillings per cubic meter (Ksh/m3) (about US$0.60), from the actual 15 Ksh/m3 charged at drinking water fountains, would be necessary to repay the loan, and this "arrangement" doesn't even include the cost of pumping (production), all of which would be financially unbearable for the population.

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