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Like Water for Profit

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Section: Environment Geography: Africa Ghana Topics: water, development

May 27, 2004

Like Water for Profit

An interview with Rudolph Amenga-Etego

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Ghanaians gather water from a well in Sukuru. So far, citizens have successfully prevented large-scale water privatization. photo: Will Parrinello
On April 19th, Rudolph Amenga-Etego was awarded the Goldman Prize, often thought of as the "Nobel Prize for the Environment," for his struggle to secure safe and affordable drinking water for the people of Ghana. It is not the word water that repeats itself most often in conversation with Amenga-Etego, however, but the word community.

According to Amenga-Etego, the World Bank has left this critical component out of its plan for water delivery in Ghana. "Their formula does not include communities. Basically, they promote a development that transfers money from banks to governments to multinational corporations. The multinational corporations then deliver the resources to the people who have no say."

Amenga-Etego is determined that the people of Ghana will have a say in the battle over the control of their country's water.

In 2001 the Ghanaian government, which owes significant debt to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), raised water rates by 95 percent in order to help pay off its debt. Many Ghanaians can no longer afford the cost of clean drinking water, and according to the country's Ministry of Health 70% of all disease in the country is water related.

The World Bank and IMF have now offered to loan Ghana even more money in order to rebuild its publicly owned and controlled water system. But the 400 million dollar loan comes with a catch: The Ghanaian government must abandon its practice of subsidising the cost of water for poor communities, and the water must be sold at full market rates.

Amenga-Etego has no illusions about the intentions of the World Bank or the multinational corporations lining up to supply Ghana's water needs. "The World Bank policy is aimed at creating markets for multinational corporations dealing water, and those corporations are not charities, they are in it for the profit."

In response to the threat of privatisation, Amenga-Etego founded the National Coalition Against the Privatisation of Water, made up of health workers, farmers, academics, environmental groups, trade unions, students and religious leaders.

"For the past three years there's been a groundswell in resistance to privatisation, and you will see that when you go into the communities and encounter what we call the local action committees."

Communities have been at the heart of resistance in Ghana, and according to Amenga-Etego they are also at the heart of the solution. "Water is meant for human consumption, it's for communities, so if those who benefit are involved then you ensure ownership. You also ensure the issues of governance are addressed because you bring management and accountability to the doorsteps of the people."

The small Ghanaian town of Savelugu provides a working example of the kind of community-based water management model that Amenga-Etego is promoting. A public water company supplies bulk water to the community and the town handles the distribution, rate collection, basic repairs and maintenance of the pipes. "It helps promote grassroots democracy. What is more democratic than involving people in managing their own lives?"

Amenga-Etego insists that Savelugu's community-based system, which is now being used as a model for small towns throughout Ghana, is not only more democratic, but also more efficient. Burst pipes are quickly fixed, collection rates have increased, people who cannot afford to pay for water are known in the community and exempt from any cost and most importantly, people in Savelugu have easy access to clean, affordable drinking water.

Community mobilisation and organising paid off in 2003 when the Ghanaian government bowed to pressure and suspended the water privatisation project. But the battle continues: the government is currently working to secure parliamentary approval of a new water privatisation plan and the World Bank has hired a public relations firm to lead a media campaign to promote the plan.

"Communities have to get their acts together" throughout Ghana and around the world, says Amenga-Etego. "We must establish networks of communities in defence of the right to water. These networks must share information about these companies, because they are the same companies."

Amenga-Etego believes that multinational corporations, such as U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation, Vivendi, Saur, Suez Lyonnaise of France and the U.K.'s Biwater, "have realized that the gold of today is water, and because the availability of fresh water is reducing due to climate change and other environmental problems, the value of water is increasing. Whoever controls the water in the future will control the wealth. Whoever controls the world's water is controlling the world's life. If people are serious about stopping this trend they need to stop the corporations"

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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