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Freetown Water Crisis – We may have survived it this year

June 13, 2016 By Joseph Macarthy (PhD)

The recent water crisis in Freetown was beyond everyone’s expectation. From March to nearly the end of May this year, access to safe drinking water in Freetown was very problematic. The same was the case in many other cities and towns in the country. For millions of people in Sierra Leone, the dry season has come to be associated with severe water scarcity. This is in spite of the country’s ideal location within the tropics with heavy rainfall, high temperatures and vast natural vegetation which creates a sound climate to provide residents with regular supply of safe drinking water. Coupled with our vast water resources as a country – the numerous rivers that traverse its terrain as well as the creeks, – Sierra Leone is in pole position to provide all its cities, towns and villages with a continuous supply of safe drinking water. The significance of providing adequate and safe drinking Water for the people is already emphasised in Sierra Leone’s Agenda for Prosperity as “a necessary precondition for socio-economic recovery at all levels of society…”

In his address on the launch of “WASH, for All: Addressing the Current and Growing Challenge” in May 2013, Minister of Water Resources, Momodu Maligi, acknowledged that while water, sanitation and hygiene are key to lifting Sierra Leoneans out of poverty and in promoting socio-economic growth, millions of Sierra Leoneans still lack access to improved water supply. In Freetown, such communities as Congo Cross, Aberdeen, Brookfield, Lumley and Central Freetown (especially the Central Business District), which, hitherto, had regular water supply are still faced with acute water shortage. This adds to such other communities as Mount Aureol, Wilberforce, Hill Station, New England, Leicester Road and Peacock Farm which have persistently grappled with access to regular water supply. “We had always thought that water problems are only for settlements located along the hill slope,” Marie Turay, a resident of Tengbeh Town told me. She continued that “nowadays even settlements that were better serviced are today faced with this same water problem”. With water supply almost reaching crisis situation in Freetown, the government needs to work hard to deliver on Goal 6 of the UNDP’s recently established Sustainable Development Goals which specifically requires countries to “ensure access to affordable water and sanitation for all”.

Whether arguing from the rights of people or from a simpler basic needs approach, all the people of a country ought to be provided with safe drinking water. With Sierra Leone ranked among the few countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with high rainfall, there already exist a huge opportunity to harness the rainwater for supply in all settlements all year round. As Pillar two of the Agenda for Prosperity document shows, Sierra Leone has a rich water resource base with run-off from its nine major rivers and the river basins amounting to 160 km3.

In Freetown however, prospects for harnessing the Orugu dam, which was identified to have more potential (than Mile 13) in providing Freetown with water has been lost since much of the water catchment is now heavily settled. Perhaps the only prospect left is the Bankasoka dam in Port Loko, which a recent study showed has a huge potential to supply Freetown with water.

Two main problems related to water are affecting the lives of most residents in Freetown. These include the lack of adequate access to safe drinking water and the accompanying sanitation problems, and the recent rise in the incidence of such water-related disasters as floods. These problems present major challenges to human health and well-being, human safety, economic growth, and the spatial development of the city. Evidences show that water inadequacies and poor sanitation facilities already account for most of the health problems faced by many households including the outbreak of such diseases as diarrhoea, malaria and cholera. While the government claims to have increased water supply and sanitation coverage in Sierra Leone and in Freetown in particular, the growth of the city’s population seems to endanger this result.

According to the 2015 National Population census figures, nearly 38% of Sierra Leone’s population already live in urban areas, and within two decades, close to 50 per cent of the country’s population will be urban dwellers. Nowhere is more densely settled and populated in Sierra Leone than its capital, Freetown. This rapid growth in the population of Freetown creates unprecedented challenges, notable among which is the problem of inadequate water supply and the poor sanitation problems that are painfully felt by thousands of the city residents. Arguably, it is impossible for a city to be sustainable if it cannot ensure reliable access to safe drinking water and acceptable sanitation for its citizens. Dealing with the rising needs of water and sanitation services in Freetown (including the other cities and towns) is one of the most pressing challenges that the government is now faced with. Managing water in an efficient, equitable and sustainable way in these places has never been as important as it is today.

In Freetown, for the many communities that are not connected to the Guma water distribution network, households have to create their own sources of getting water by digging water wells. Mabinty Kamara, a petty trader who lives at Farrah Lane, close to Fourah Bay College, explained for example that the only source of water supply in her entire neighbourhood is a hand-dug-well in a nearby compound. According to her, Le2, 000 is usually paid to the owner for every five-gallon-sized jerry can full of water. Considering her family size (6), this surely exerts added economic burden on her, thus preventing her from meeting other livelihood needs of her family. Pa Abu, the water well owner explained that the well was dug purposely to meet the acute water problems usually faced in his community. He continues that because Guma is unwilling to connect his area with water, they needed to provide the service themselves.

The recent water crisis was more severe in the informal settlements, specifically in the Freetown slums where the urban poor who usually lack many of life’s basic necessities (safe drinking water, durable housing, secure tenure, adequate sanitation services and access to health services) concentrate. Often, people living in these settlements pay more for a litre of water than an average Freetown resident since the households do not have access to piped water at home. A large proportion of these residents do not use protected water sources for drinking. For many, the main sources of drinking sources are water wells, and unprotected spring water. As water from these sources is mostly untreated, infections found in the water can be a major cause of death in such places.

Whenever Freetown faces water shortages, it is the women and children who suffer the most. There are reported evidences of young girls trading sex for a few buckets of water. Some children have lost precious school and study times either in long queues or walking long distances to fetch water. Every year, a number of lives are lost from diseases associated with poor water and sanitation services. There are also reports of people going for days without taking bath.

As in many other African cities, infrastructural progress and technical capacity for delivering water have lagged well behind urban population growth in Freetown for several decades. While the government claims that they have repaired much of Guma’s water infrastructure, the recent water crisis showed that the water distribution systems in Freetown are still inefficient and unmaintained, leading to the huge shortage in water supply. A number of the old pipes have deteriorated leading to massive water loss, which in turn affects the availability of water further down the line from the main Guma dam. In a recent newspaper interview with Bankole Mansaray, the General Manager for Guma, it was shown that the existing water infrastructure for delivering water in Freetown is already stressed with demand for water being far in excess of the current capacity of Guma to deliver.

Built since 1965 with a storage capacity of 23.3 billion litres of water, Guma harvests much of the water in its major dam at Mile 13 during the rainy season, which it uses in the dries. However, and as the Water Resources Minister very recently disclosed in his update to the President, this dam which supplies 95% of the water needs of Freetown experiences leakages both to the scour valve and to the water distribution networks. This reduces water pressure from reaching communities existing at the edge of the networks. Besides, several of the pipes that were intended to ensure a constant flow of water are now used only intermittently. As less water flows through the pipes to areas further away from the Guma dam, only a few households have access to safe drinking water.

The frequent water crisis faced in Freetown and other places risk decreasing the life expectancy of residents in Sierra Leone. Already, the average life expectancy for a Sierra Leonean is a mere 56 years – being one of the lowest in the world. Like in many other countries in Sub Saharan Africa, waterborne diseases are among the major causes of death among infants, children and adults in Sierra Leone. In Freetown, diarrhea is one of the leading causes of water related deaths among infants and children, especially in the informal settlements. Particularly in overcrowded communities with inadequate water supplies and poor sanitation, diarrhea account for a high proportion of illnesses. Access to safe drinking water is fundamental to human health and livelihoods. It is a major determinant of the quality of life of a country’s population. Inadequate access to safe water and exposure to pathogens through contamination leads to adverse health consequences.

Freetown’s growing urban population and physical expansion will continue to present daunting challenges for the provision of safe drinking water by GUMA. Research shows that in just a little over thirty years, Freetown has grown larger, quicker and a lot denser than ever before. However, Planning, infrastructural development and urban services provision of the city has largely failed to cope with this pace of growth. If we do not plan the next 30 years in the development of Freetow, which arguably is one the periods when it (Freetown) will experience its heaviest urban growth, we would have lost another opportunity to deal with the chaotic, dysfunctional and unregulated development of the city. With warnings from the recent water crisis, providing water for close to 3 million people over the next 30 years requires the government to plan by accommodating the future growth of the city or to get them wrong by limiting their considerations only to the current water crisis.

The government should open up to flexible solutions in dealing with the problem.This would include building public-private partnerships whereby Guma partners with private operators to provide water service to communities that are outside its present distribution system. In particular, private operators can be encouraged to fund, build, and maintain water services for people especially those living in mountain communities where water access is currently problematic. As has been repeatedly pointed out, Sierra Leone has a large volume of ground water that can be abstracted by GUMA and/ or private operators to augment the water reserve in its major dam at Mile 13. At present, the use of ground water is limited to a few households that are usually not connected to the water distribution network. However, to date, the estimated safe yield (per day) of ground water in Freetown is not clearly known to allow licensed usage by the private sector. It is broadly recognised that when the coverage of safe drinking water is expanded, a wide range of benefits can be attained. These range from the attainment of longer lifespan to reduced incidence of morbidity and mortality from various diseases. Other social benefits include increased school attendance, lower health costs, and less time and effort devoted to managing water. For women, the time saved could be spent on engaging in other productive activities including providing more time for childcare, socialisation, and personal development. To date, much of the discussions for improving the water sector have focused on exploring funds mainly from international and national funding sources. There has been far less discussion of private sector role, including a potential investment role by NASSIT [National Social Security Trust].

*The author is a lecturer at the Institute of Geography and Development Studies, Njala University, Sierra Leone

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