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14.03.2008 Feature Article

A Yellow Can Of Beer

By Graphic
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I do not know where or when this picture was taken. It is that of a beggar standing on a street curb with a large sign that reads: “Need some money for beer and a busty hooker.”

That may be on the extreme fringes of the absurd when it comes to a poor man's priorities, but what about this other one, Jomo?:

A diabetic has just enough money for a pack of cigarettes which he should not be smoking in the very first place, come to think of it. He has to make a choice between the pack and his next shot of insulin, and he goes for the pack!

It is one of those situations where even Sherlock Holmes, who could never be surprised by anything, would most likely declare to his friend Dr Watson: “Strange, Watson, absolutely strange.” Strange, because it stands prudence upside down in the exercise of a very critical choice.

Has it ever occurred to you, Jomo, that life is really about making choices nearly every minute of the 24-hour day?
The moment you wake up in the morning, you have to start making choices straightaway: What comes first? A trip to the loo? a phone call? a quiet word of gratitude to God, or something else . . .? 

When an individual makes a choice, he carries the consequences in the heavy knapsack of personal responsibility for better or for worse. When politicians make choices on our behalf and things go wrong, we pay the price. 

When we make the wrong choice of leaders who must make choices on our behalf, we pay the price. Heads we lose.
Tails we lose. It seems so unfair, Jomo. That is why we voters must look sharp when politicians and their propagandists engage in a fierce battle for our hearts and minds in an election year like this. 

Providence has dropped on our laps an unexpected chip for silently negotiating our choice of the next leader:
There is a looming threat of a grave water supply crisis in coming years, and we must make that one of the campaign issues.

All week a movie has been playing over and over again in my skull. It is titled “The Amazing Case of Water Politics.” 

In the opening scene, the government's big man in charge of water supply is wearing a big suit and making a big speech: 
He says the Ghana Water Company has been subjected to bad management for many years. There has been no investment whatsoever in the water sector for as long as anyone can remember. 

He says the water company has been running monstrous operational losses for years. The company produces 450 million litres of water a day for national consumption, but half of the lot is lost due to leakage.
What is more, water consumers are not paying for water consumed. He says this cannot go on, and the government has hit upon the solution to the problem. 

The scene ends with a declared resolve by the government to privatise the management of the country's water supply.
Privatisation would remove the inefficiencies of a loss-making public enterprise and make potable water available to more than 25,000 homes not connected to transmission lines.

Then scene two of the movie starts to play: Socialist-minded activists are chanting: “No Privatisation”. Their beef?
If the management of water supply is privatised, its price will take a hike and get tossed about by market forces. 

That would put water out of the reach of poor communities, which would be most unacceptable, since access to water is a basic human right. 

They insist we ask the government to instead strengthen the management capacity of the water company.
They suggest more efficient conservation of water through the prompt reporting of leaks, the protection of pipelines and the minimising of wastage of water in general.

The anti-privatisation activists are called leftist trouble-making, busybodies for their troubles.

Others say if it is considered necessary to privatise the management of water supply at all cost, local entrepreneurs should be given the contract. In the end, a foreign company Aqua Vitens Rand wins the contract (for better or worse). 

The government waxes confident of the programme's success. It says the World Bank has made $103 million of Yankee green bucks to support the programme.
 The money would be spent on repairs of old water pipes and the laying of new ones to connect more consumers to water supply. 

In the next scene, we are back to the spot preceding square one: The capital is hit with one of the most severe water shortages in recent times.
The challenges and contradictions of urban development strategies gone wrong have a way of throwing up weird symbols. 

 In the wake of the water shortages, such a symbol has come in the form of what people call “the Kufuor gallon”, a yellow plastic container residents of the capital carry around in search of water to fill. Sometimes, the water they get looks like beer!

Excellent excuses for the water shortages there are galore, Jomo: The new managers say electrical power supply fluctuations and outages have been making it impossible to pump water.
 There are pipe bursts and leakages, poachers are stealing some of the precious fluid of life, consumers are not paying their tariffs.

An inexplicable combination of these and other “unprecedented” and unforeseen occurrences which occurred within a matter of days in February, led to the acute shortages, we were told.

The new managers say the population of the capital requires some 150 million litres of water a day. The combined capacities of the Weija and Kpong plants is 90 million gallons.
See how beautifully we are diagnosing the problem, Jomo? It means what we needed to do was not to hand over management of water supply to a foreign company.

We needed to build a plant with a production capacity of at least 60 million litres to offset the supply deficit and upgrade existing transmission lines.

Where is the money to invest in a third plant supposed to come from? Why, from the government and private investors, Jomo.
Unfortunately there are no signs that we shall be building a new plant anytime too soon. Yet if we do not, we could face a grave water crisis in the next few years. The signs are as clear as those that preceded our debilitating electrical energy crisis!

By George Sydney Abugri


Graphic, © 2008

The author has 32 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: Graphic

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