The Difference

Water is “a sacred gift and” ought to be “a basic human right”;

But to make the inference that it is available in any appreciable abundance in Africa;

And to say that it is being privatized by private-for-profit companies in Africa;

And to assert that there is such a practice that causes the dire scarcity, and the punishing shortage of water in Africa;

Is dangerously erroneous, and culpably misleading.

And below is the reason why.

On the Issue of the Inaccessibility of Clean, Safe, Reliable Water to the Impoverished People of Africa; The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) Has Got It All Wrong.

I picked up your Share Lent publication at my church and read the article captioned “Water: A sacred gift and a basic human right”. It stated that water has “been under threat from pollution, overuse and waste. Now, people’s access to fresh water is subject to a new stress – the privatization of public water systems”. With the back-drop as Africa, and judging from the picture attendant to the article, I find the assertion to be dangerously erroneous and misleading because of the wrong impression it creates in the minds of Canadians.

In the November 3, 2003, issue of the Western Catholic Reporter, you, Mr. Bob Schmidt, “animator for the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace” was quoted as saying that “a whole lot of people, especially in the developing world, are being deprived of … water (which) is the essence of life”. And “he places the blame squarely on the privatization of water delivery, which increases the cost of water without satisfying the thirst of the world’s poorest people”. You went on to say that “millions of poor people find the tap turned off because they cannot pay their water bill. So in desperation, they turn to unsafe water sources”.

You have got it all wrong. Your assertion may be the case elsewhere in your “Global South”, but not quite correct in the African context. At the least you should have provided some particular case examples from the African countries where your organization operate to buttress your sweeping generalization that “about 300 million African people do not have access to safe water” because of water privatization. I find such pronouncements to be lacking in sensitivity; and unfair to the African people who are suffering untold hardship and dying in droves from benign neglect by the international community and the callousness, and lack of social conscience on the part of their own leaders.

Some Non-Governmental Organizations provide water to the African people by digging wells and boreholes. In your assertions, you never mentioned any incident or instance where the source of water supply provided by your organization was shut-down or “turned off” by “a private for-profit water company”. The generality of “African people do not have access to safe, (clean and reliable source of) water” because water has not been made available to them by their governments or the NGOs. African “women and children now (and always) walk an average of 21 minutes each trip to collect water” from streams and brooks because those are the only sources of water supply available to them. Millions of African people turn to unsafe unreliable sources of water supply, infested with pollutants: pools of ground water; brooks and streams fertile breeding grounds for all manner of water-borne diseases, neither because they “find the tap turned off”, nor because they “are not able to pay skyrocketing water bills”. There are no taps in these rural towns and villages, in the first place. The few taps in the cities are not “turned off” either, but are simply dry. No water!

Mr. Mannir Dan-Ali, a BBC News Online correspondent in Abuja, capital of Nigeria writes in December 2003, and I quote:

“In spite of the posh buildings which dot the capital’s skyline, many parts of the capital are without pipe-borne water.

The pipes are there but no water comes gushing out when you open them.

This is mostly the case all year round but it gets worse in the dry season, when residents cannot get nature’s assistance via rainwater.”

Abuja, established as the capital of Nigeria in 1991, was planned for 250,000 people, but “the population is now more than one million and rising by the day”. The Minister for Water Resources, Alhaji Mukhtar Shagari believes that this phenomenon “has stretched the city’s resources, thereby leading to problems such as those of water shortages”. For the minister “the problem will persist until a huge new dam in the neigbouring Kaduna State is completed sometime next year”.

The correspondent continues:

“Some residents sink a bore hole or rely on water tankers to fill up their reservoirs for domestic and other uses …

Water tankers are used to ferry water from elsewhere to (water the) gardens of the presidential villa itself.

Some residents of one of the central districts, Wuse Two, told BBC News Online that there had been no pipe-borne water in their area for the past two years.

An angry resident, Alhaji Ibrahim Baba Jimeta, said all their complaints to the municipal water authorities had not brought any relief. ‘It is either sabotage or a deliberate policy to expose us to water-borne disease,’ he said. ‘We cannot attest to the hygiene of the water we buy from the hawkers. It is unbecoming of a federal capital city,’ he adds.”

Mr. Dan-Ali of the BBC continues to observe, and I quote:

“For Mr. Jimeta and others, whose taps have not seen any water for so long, they now rely on water hawkers, a common sight on most of Abuja’s streets. In some cases these young men go to the nearest place where pipe-borne water still runs and fill up their jerry cans for sale to residents in the not-so-lucky areas.”

The water shortages of Abuja are a microcosm of the preponderance of Africa. Nowhere in Mr. Dan-Ali’s writing is blame placed “squarely on the privatization of water delivery”, or on “a private for-profit water company (who turns the taps off on the poor residents of Abuja because they) are not able to pay skyrocketing water bills”. I know that Mr. Dan-Ali’s observation is accurate because I have just returned from Nigeria. I have traveled extensively in Africa and know that the situation he describes resonates in all of Africa.

Your case is a typical example of outsiders – the so-called experts on Africa – arrogating to themselves the right to tell Africans what their problems are instead of listening to Africans tell their story as to how best they can be helped.