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Government in deep waters over water privatization

In a remote and poor town in northern Ghana where water is a rare commodity, participants at a workshop strongly opposed government's policy on water privatization.
Santuah Niagia

Not many Ghanaians question Ghana's reticent President, John Agyekum Kufuor's fast track approach to boost foreign direct investment in the country. He has already made about 33 trips outside the country ostensibly to sell the country's investment potentials abroad. The people in the northern part of the country are not happy with the president's failure to visit them since coming to power in January, 2002.

Last month, when Kufuor was abroad, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan braved the scorching heat in remote parts of northern Ghana to see how far people have advanced in their battle against poverty. In Navrongo, 900km from Ghana's capital Accra, and under 10km from the border with Burkina Faso, Annan on August 19, 2002 visited the University for Development Studies, the venue of a workshop against the privatisation of water.

The workshop was organised by Peoples' Action for Community Transformation (PACT), the local partner in the national Coalition Against the Privatisation of Water (CAP). Sixty-five participants from various organisations in the Upper-East region attended the workshop. This is Ghana's poorest region where nine out of 10 people live below the poverty line. Participants showed a greater understanding of the key issues and an even larger interest is spreading the message to a wider audience.

They resolved that all Ghanaians should say NO to privatisation of water because "water is life and should not be treated as a commodity." The Workshop convener, Dennis Chirawurah stated: "Water is too precious a national asset to be left in the hands of multinationals, which are driven by the greed for gain more than anything else."

Other specific concerns raised were that privatizing water is a serious threat to Ghana's democracy, insinuating that the Ghanaians are either too corrupt or incapable of managing their own resources. Participants also called on the government to show transparency in the "water restructuring" process and encouraged exhaustive public discussion so as to reach a conclusion that reflects the interests of the ordinary Ghanaian.

Under its "golden age of business" the ruling government seeks to involve the private sector in the running of essential services. The government seems to believe that public services such as water and electricity can and should be privately delivered, since private sector management encourages competition, which is the best way of achieving efficiency.

The government claims the water sector needs huge capital inflow from abroad for revitalisation. British Minister for International Development Ms Clare Short is reportedly at the centre of the government's controversial water policy. She is said to have promised the government funds for a major water project if it went ahead to privatise Ghana's water.

Above all the government is convinced that the way services are delivered is irrelevant and all that matters is the quality of the final product. But CAP thinks otherwise. "We should be searching for ways to restructure our public utilities instead of privatizing them. Experience from other countries shows that privatisation of water in the form and manner the government is doing it does not work… in Europe, water privatisation has been failing for decades, and in several towns water has been "re-municipalized" or taken back from Multinational corporations", stated a CAP release.

The release cites the celebrated case of the city of Grenoble in France, which took back its water from Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, one of the companies bidding for Ghana's urban water service. A more recent case is the case of the city of Vancouver, Canada, which successfully stopped the privatization of its water.

Dr. Anthony Akoto Osei, Special Assistant to the Minister of Finance says that under a new policy known as 'Offset,' the government will write off all debts owed to it by three utility companies and to each other for services rendered. A sum of US$118 million will be wiped off in favour of the Ghana Water Company Ltd (GWSC), the Volta River Authority (VRA) and the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG).

CAP is advocating for a local or municipal management as a realistic option for urban as well as rural water delivery systems. Small towns and rural communities can develop partnerships with better-endowed municipal water systems to overcome their deficiencies with "…some financial support from the Central government for rehabilitation, replacement or expansion."

The national coalition is apprehensive that privatisation will put the fate of 2100 workers in the balance. The assertion that these would be absorbed into the new workforce is illusory. It mentions the Republic of Guinea, which is often cited as a success story by World Bank officials and pro-privatization technocrats in Ghana.

Privatization spelt unemployment even for the so called essential staff which was cut from 504 to 290.The connection fee also increased beyond the reach of the urban poor and the so called market tariffs excluded over thirty per cent of the population from accessing water. Even though the connection rate increased by nine per cent over 7 years, less than one per cent was to low-income areas. CAP fears this scenario could be re-enacted in Ghana if the privatization goes ahead.

As the Navrongo workshop noted, there are no viable mechanisms to ensure that vulnerable groups will have access to quality water at affordable cost. Trans-national corporations may indulge in dubious and inhuman practices to make profit at the expense of consumers.

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