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sierra leone: water, not privatisation, for the people

As it emerges from years of devastating conflict, Sierra Leone faces further obstacles in achieving its Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without access to clean water. Currently only 46 percent of people in the capital city of Freetown have access to safe drinking water, and only 30 percent to basic sanitation services.


sierra leone Access to safe water is a basic right. Yet in Freetown this right is not being met by the current water supplier, the cash-strapped, state-owned Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC), its infrastructure eroded after years of war. However, privatisation, an option pushed on the country by the World Bank, IMF and aid agencies like the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), is not the solution favoured by civil society groups. “We are very concerned about the government’s intention to privatise … when water is an essential resource for the survival of poor people,” said Olatunde Johnson of Friends of the Earth Sierra Leone.

For this project, FoE Sierra Leone sought to have the DFID cease its support for water privatisation in Sierra Leone. They also aimed to facilitate the preparation of national water and sanitation policy, and water regulation.

what happened: FoE Sierra Leone participated in consultations with decision makers, government officials, paramount chiefs and local council village heads. They also took part in media interviews and radio discussions, to inform people from all walks of life on how the GVWC could strengthen its performance without having to be privatised.

FoE Sierra Leone, along with other civil society groups, lobbied the government, DFID and PricewaterhouseCoopers. The latter is a consultancy employed by the DFID to advise Sierra Leone’s National Commission for Privatisation (NCP), ostensibly on how to privatise the GVWC. FoE Sierra Leone and civil society groups also worked with the NCP on a proposed national water and sanitation policy, and set up an integrated and participatory approach for water resource planning, management and development.

The group also worked on and facilitated plans to establish an energy and water utilities regulatory authority. And finally, FoE Sierra Leone carried out a comprehensive survey of Freetown’s water supplies.

what is changing: The above activities enabled FoE Sierra Leone to provide evidence-based results on Freetown’s water sector and to propose recommendations for reform options, soundly based on their broad consultations with water users in the Guma Valley system. The findings are not only key to designing policy, they are also vital to inform the public’s view as they seek a system to meet their need and guarantee their rights.

The project helped improve the GVWC’s performance through a comprehensive performance contract setup by the NCP. The NCP and GVWC also aimed to identify activities which could be carried out through private-sector involvement in GVWC operations, such as borehole drilling; meter connections and repairs, water bill distribution, stand pipe management, spare parts supply and distribution. Another result of the project will be review studies on the GVWC investment and expansion plans to increase its supply of water from additional sources.

what we learned: FoE Sierra Leone’s work revealed that wider civil society is not engaged in the dialogue around planned reform of the GVWC. A survey conducted by the group indicates the vast majority of people in affected communities knew little or nothing about government policy on water supply.

To change this, and for the sake of accountability and transparency, it will be vital to generate some form of public debate/consultations about the issue and create the necessary awareness, participation and ownership; and thereby a guarantee of people’s stake in the decision-making process.

what next: An important problem FoE Sierra Leone faces is lack of transparency in the consultation process with the government and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Although the privatisation agenda was not articulated in this process, it was nonetheless reflected in their final report. Unfortunately this seems to suggest, quite wrongly, that privatisation has the tacit support of civil society. Thus there is need for further debate, and for the Government of Sierra Leone to clarify its position on this.

with thanks to our funders: the dutch ministry of foreign affairs

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