January 20, 2016 By Oswald Hanciles
“We spend more money to fight chronic societal problems in Sierra Leone; and are reluctant to spend less money to prevent these same problems” – Samuel Bangura, Managing Director, Sierra Leone Water Company (SALWACO)
“Aqua Royal” ‘dorti watta’ sold as pure water
About a month ago, I started doing journalistic investigation on drinking water in our country. That had led me to the office of the diminutive intense-looking 40ish SALWACO boss, Samuel Bangura. Coincidentally, as I returned home, my wife asked me to taste a water sachet with the brand name “Aqua Royal”. I had bought it the day before – it had a bad taste
The next day, I drove to where I had bought the bundle of water – 112 Pademba Road; adjacent the centuries old Christ Church. The proprietor/manager of the business, Alieu Bah, came out to meet me on the street. His shirt buttons open; his short trousers dirty; his beard speckled – he looked more like a labourer in a factory than a proprietor/manager of a water processing plant. I gave him a sachet of the “Aqua Royal” water I had bought from him. He tasted it. He said it was bad. He made excuses. It was where he bought the plastic to package the water, he said. Where? He has bought it from a “Lebanese” shop at Sani Abacha Street – which supplied him with the “Chinese” plastic paper. I asked him to show me the business location. He couldn’t.
90 out of 110 water processing companies sell “unsatisfactory” water
I drove down to the newly refurbished spacious compound of the Sierra Leone Standards Bureau at Wahman Abu Compound, in the East-end of Freetown. The two storey buildings smelt of new paint. The marble floors were as white as the white walls. I was ushered into the well air-conditioned office of the Executive Director of the Bureau, James Dumbuya. I plopped the ‘offensive’ Aqua Royal sachet on his polished desk. He was unfazed. He stood up. He riffled through papers in his hand, and pointed out to “Aqua Royal” written on one of the pages, among other companies.
Engineer Dumbuya told me that Aqua Royal was one of the 90 (NINETY!!) water processing companies in Freetown the Standards Bureau started doing chemical and biological tests on since October, 2015, and were said to be “unsatisfactory” for human consumption. Of the 110 water processing companies in Freetown, only 20 (only TWENTY) were found to be processing water fit for human beings to consume. He said that most of the water companies “passed” the “chemical tests”, but, failed in the “biological tests”. This meant that they found a lot of disease-causing micro-organisms in the water they process and sell to the public. CEO Dumbuya and his deputy, Amadu Bah, then took me on a guarded tour of the spanking new 12 laboratory spacious Standards Bureau building (built with funding from the Government of Sierra Leone; and “electrical materials” with sponsorship from the governments of Norway and Finland, and UNIDO), with state-of-the-art equipment being newly installed. CEO Dumbuya promised to send me details on the chemistry and biology deficiencies found in the water of 90 “unsatisfactory” water processing companies; and information on the financial details of financing on the new buildings and materials. He hasn’t done so – weeks after his promise.
I asked CEO Dumbuya that with their alarming findings about the bad water being sold to unsuspecting consumers in Freetown, what would they do? He said they don’t have the powers to do anything, but, would send their findings to a new “regulatory body” that has the legal mandate to enforce certain laws.
Electricity and Water Regulatory Commission
At a brand new four-storey building at Berwick Street, close to St. John, in central Freetown, there is the Electricity and Water Regulatory Commission office. I was honoured, immediately ushered into the conference room to meet with six of the top executives of the Commission, including their Executive Director, Dr. Zubairu Kalokoh, former NPA boss. The soft-spoken professorial Dr. Zubairu said the case I had presented to the new regulatory commission reflects “a crisis” that would be “unacceptable”. He bemoaned the “deception” of the water companies; and said his Commission would be “aggressive” in taking action against them. He said that since their Commission opened shop in October of 2015 (the parliamentary act that established the commission was in 2011), they have recorded “unregulated” and even “illegal” water processing companies all over the country – about 1,000 of them in the country. His legal expert spoke of the Electricity and Water Regulatory Commission Act empowering the Commission to take only “court action” against water companies found wanting. Engineer Kalokoh acknowledged that the grave situation of bad water being sold as pure water in packet and bottles “could lead to an epidemic”; but, he said as “the new kid on the block”, they have to tread gingerly for now, as there were other “regulatory bodies” doing what parliament has empowered them to do. Who? The Ministry of Health and Sanitation Directorate of Environmental Health and Sanitation.
Lack of “ENFORCEMENT”!! No Political Will
On the 4th floor of Youyi Building in Freetown, inside a crammed office he shared with another staff, Juliana Kamanda, I met with the Director of the Directorate of Environmental Health and Sanitation, Dr. Ansumana Sillah. He said that his Directorate in the health ministry has “acknowledged” that there are water processing companies “operating illegally”; and they know that some are on premises which are “filthy”. He said his Directorate, under which there is a Unit of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) headed by one Sorie Koroma, exists to make sure that the water companies do their business in healthy environments. There are laws which can be invoked to make these water companies compliant, but, there is the big problem of “enforcement”. At the word of “enforcement”, Juliana Kamanda stood up from behind her desk, and thundered the word as if she were on a pulpit in an evangelical church exorcising demons. She said there was definitely a “lack of political will” to take action on those who are processing the poor water and selling it; including other violators of sanitation laws.
I was told of a study on these water sold in sachets commissioned by the health ministry, through the consulting firm Adam Smith International, and financed by the British overseas development agency, DfID. The study was done by a local NGO called FOCUS-1,000. Juliana Kamanda said she would send me an e-copy of the study. She hasn’t sent it to me since she said she would on Monday. (Psss!!: The health ministry officials appear unaware of the new water/electricity regulatory body; and they were still doing what the regulatory body is supposed to be doing. Please, don’t tell anyone I told you that!!).
Development Communication is not a spare tyre
Inside a fenced compound of a 1970s-built house just before entering the Peace Bridge in central Freetown, I met with the Executive Director of the FOCUS-1,000, Momodu B. Jalloh – in a tight office, and his desk bedecked with files and books. Jalloh looked, and has the demeanor of, the ‘United Nations-type’: cool efficiency, and precision in language. Well, he was….
M.B. Jalloh worked in UNICEF-Sierra Leone for 13 years; and UNICEF-New York for five years; Nigeria between 2004 to 2008; and in Bangladesh between 2008 to 2012. He was one of those who helped to reduce “infant mortality” in the densely-populated 170 million Bangladesh by half. That was what got him to leave his UN job and return to replicate what he has done in other countries within his land of birth, Sierra Leone. He couldn’t give me the FOCUS-1,000 report on commercially produced water sachets, because it was “unethical” – as it was a study commissioned by the health ministry. A seasoned communications expert, he said what has been wrong in development in Sierra Leone has been a “failure of community engagement”. His near Caucasian features reddened a bit, and his cultured voice rose, as he triumphantly explained how he has used “patience” in his communication strategies with people during the height of the Ebola crisis to secure their cooperation in a continual dialogue. “People must be made to understand issues; and when they understand, they have to accept; and only then would they put messages into action,” he sermonised. M.B. Jalloh intoned, “Communities, especially in the rural areas, must cease being onlookers in the development process”. With a belligerent sneer on his lips, M.B. Jalloh echoed my stance when he derided government officials who perceive communications as “a spare tyre” in the developmental process “instead of one of the FOUR tyres that must be there to get the developmental vehicle moving”. He preached Development Communication to me: “Laws are necessary, but, if you use the laws where the majority are violating health laws, it won’t work. Persuasion is the best option”.
As the crisis in ‘Dorti Watta’ being sold expensively as pure water in Freetown continues, we wait. Wait for the epidemic that Dr. Zubairu Kalokoh spoke about? Wait to spend more money to cure societal problems and not spend less more money on PREVENTING such problems as impure water being sold as pure water – as SALWCO’s youthful MD had chided Sierra Leonean society? Wait to pamper a few unscrupulous business people while millions of the citizenry suffer for it? You would be appalled at this Waiting Game when you learn that about 60% of diseases in Sierra Leone are water-borne diseases. Probably, computing money spent on curing these diseases, and loss of productivity, Sierra Leone could be losing about half its annual budgetary allocation, over $300,000,000 a year, due to poor drinking water. Thankfully, we will wait ONLY DAYS for me to continue my serial on water. Maybe, government, parliament, civil society, women, youth, Islamic and Christian clergies….will be galvanized into action to ensure that one of the most fundamental rights of the human being – clean water to drink – leads to the resolute action for which the government of President Ernest Bai Koroma has made adequate financial provisions for.