by Kwabena Fio, 13 June 2008, Public Agenda
I have been prompted to write this article in response to the purported statement made by the Hon. Minister for Works, Housing and Water Resources, Hon. Abubakar Saddique to the effect that “Water is no more free”. As a member of the National Coalition against Privatization of Water (NCAP) I have been observing with keen interest the recent occurrences in the water sector.
The Honorable Minister is reported to have stated that Ghanaians should “do away with the perception that water is a social commodity that must be provided by the government free of charge”. Raging on, the Minister added that “this perception has made people to misuse the commodity”. To demonstrate his philosophical aversion for the states’ role in subsidizing water, the Minister argued that “Water is now a commercial commodity…that people should be prepared to purchase it at a fee to make consumers more responsible.”
If the above words as captured by the Ghanaian Chronicle in its volume 7, May 30th edition are accurate, for which I have no reason to doubt, then it is most unfortunate and the good people of this country should gird their loins for the next phase of the struggle against the defunct concept of privatization which the minister is trying without success to push down our throats. Indeed it is a veiled attempt to revive the privatization saga in the water sector and this rabid desire to sell everything public, which owes its roots to an ideological orientation, rather than an empirical economic theory would be defeated once more.
It is instructive to note that the general struggle by the public and the NCAP to keep water public is not attributable to any orientation that desires to use water freely. It must be placed on record that the Ghanaian people since independence have been contributing to water delivery and have always purchased water at an acceptably subsidized rate. It is worth mentioning that if there is any segment of this country that does not pay for water, it is none other than the minister and his philosophical-cohorts.
It is a fait accompli that water all over the world is now accorded its traditional status as a social good, hence it ought to be kept in the public domain. In spite of this fact the minister maintains an antiquated view that water is a commercial commodity and therefore consumers should be prepared to pay for it. Mr. minister, as you rightly pointed out, water is an inelastic good and I concur to that. But precisely because of its inelastic nature that is why the market cannot be a means for distributing it. If we dare to do so the poor, the weak and marginalized are the ones that will bear the brunt of such a nefarious policy.
Any student of politics will readily agree that the provision of certain services is linked to the exercise of governmental authority. It is the basis on which the people can assess whether to extend the social contract with the ruling political authority or to terminate their appointment. The concept of privatization is identified as a passing-back mechanism, and an attempt by the ruling elite to flee from the social contract. Ghanaians by consensus have demonstrated quite clearly that certain public goods cannot be included in the basket of privatization and are prepared to jealously guard against it. In all democracies where there is active citizenry, where the population is discerning, it is the Sovereign WILL of the people that finds expression in public policy choices and in the calculus of consent these equations are not separable.
Various researches have indicated that there is a positive correlation between the lack of access to potable water and other waterborne diseases-guinea worm inclusive. It is a fact that water when priced beyond the reach of the poor, makes them resort to the use of unwholesome water from all manner of sources including gutters. It is for this and other reasons that the UN Millennium Development Goal 7 (Target 10) seeks to “Halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water” and the government of Ghana says it intends to attain this particular goal. If this is a sincere target government wants to meet, can the market deliver this target?
The current government and various governments in the past have through various subtle means attempted to privatize water but have not succeeded due to obvious reasons. To attain its ideological aim of privatization the government sought to ‘smuggle’ water into the basket of privatization through a management contract with Aqua Vitens Rand Limited. The promise was that the water situation in most parts of the country was to see a significant improvement. However, if the water crisis that hit most parts of the country is anything to go by, then it can safely be concluded that Aqua Vitens delivered nothing short of an empty barrel and Ghanaians will attest to this.
The government of Ghana in its water policy document of (2005), copiously captures the vision of the government which finds expression in the GPRS II policy document. In the GPRS II the government recognizes that “improving access to potable water and sanitation is critical to achieving favourable health outcomes, which in turn facilitate economic growth and sustained poverty reduction” it further adds that “ strategies for providing safe water will focus on increasing access to rural, urban and un-served peri-urban and poor urban areas”. Obviously the government of Ghana recognizes the need to improve access of water to rural, peri-urban and urban areas. What the Hon. Minister must know is that access is not limited to the extension of water to these identified areas, but it also includes affordability issues. Of what use will it be if water infrastructure is extended to rural communities if they cannot afford the facility?
In a recent study conducted by the United Nations Research Institutive for Social Development (UNRISD-September,2007),it came to light that policies by developing countries seeking to promote Private Sector Participation in the water sector is not only economically flawed, but an exercise in futility. This research, which captures 15 years of water and sanitation privatization in some countries depict a significant tension between social development, public health, environmental sustainability and poverty reduction on one hand, and the sectional interest of the private sector on the other. The study further suggests that foreign capital under Private Sector Privatization (PSP) is only interested in large markets with very limited risk and Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to water and sanitation sectors in developing countries is marginal. For instance in the said study only 13 per cent of countries in South Asia have PSP arrangements as compared to the 64 per cent in East Asia and the Pacific.
From the above, it is abundantly clear that multinational companies in the water sector are not interested in low-income countries where extending water on commercial basis across the country requires huge capital outlay by way of infrastructure expansions, but even where they feign such interest they seek to enter contractual relationships that limits their operations to urban areas where there is the presumption that the people in these geographical brackets will be able to afford market prices of water. The poor and vulnerable in the rural areas where this facility is most needed are therefore marginalized and unattended to hence the selective inattention being paid by the Minister to global trends in water management leaves much to be desired and this gives cause for concern.
The above research when juxtaposed with the position of the National Coalition Against Privatization of water and several other views expressed by other well-meaning Ghanaians against the PSP arrangement with Aqua Vitens Rand limited, one has the impression of having being vindicated. It is not surprising that with its contractual arrangement with the Ghanaian government Aqua Vitens et al opted for a management contract where their obligations under the covenant is limited to collecting water bills when it is known that what Ghana Water Company limited (GWCL) lacked wasn’t a management capacity, but a considerable investment in infrastructural expansions-a responsibility the government of Ghana (GoG) is striving to flee from. This is because the current commitments by GoG are at its best infinitesimal of what the water sector needs.
The preparatory attempts by the Minister to reintroduce the fertile grounds for the triumphant entry of the multinational conglomerates through his edict that water is no longer a social good but a commercial commodity contradicts his own government’s policy document on water and ought not be countenanced. It is interesting to note that the only reason the Minister adduces for the commercialization of water is in his own words “…people should be prepared to purchase at a market fee to make consumers responsible.” What the Minister does not add is the inefficiency in the system that leads to the loss of about 40 per cent of treated water. Who should be paying for this wasted water? Should it be the average over taxed Ghanaian?
The Hon. Minister Abubakar Saddique must get it once and for all; water is one of the essential services that constitute a social good. It is not a market commodity therefore its price cannot be left for the determination of the market. The public space called the market is the creation of the people. The market must therefore be accountable to them. In democratic governance it is the COLLECTIVE SOVEREIGN WILL of the majority of the people that is made to prevail and not the sectional individual interests of a few. Mr. Saddique must understand that Ghanaians did not invite him to serve, it was his personal decision to serve the public and he can therefore not be issuing fiats that contradict the will of the people. Vituperations that seek to foul the atmosphere and clog the wheel of dialogue that has characterized the water debate so far should be discouraged. There are countless Ghanaians who are prepared to put their services at the disposal of the state so that water remains a public good. If the kitchen is too hot do the honourable thing-please exit.