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Why Clean, Safe Water Is Still Out of Reach for Liberia

April 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Since 1980, Liberia has tackled a cycle of civil war, claiming over 200,000 lives while developing an impossible water crisis. In partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, correspondent Steve Sapienza and two local journalists unearth why the government and aid agencies can't crack the country's water problems.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a West African country struggles to recover from years of conflict and aims to provide its citizens with very basic needs, including safe drinking water.

Special correspondent Steve Sapienza has another of his collaborations with African journalists covering the continent’s water issues.

His story was done in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Since 1980, the West African nation of Liberia has been through a cycle of bloody civil war that has claimed over 200,000 lives.

Reporter Tecee Boley survived the turmoil and is now pushing the government to tackle a water crisis that arose during the war years, a crisis that is still claiming lives today.

Radio journalist Tecee Boley wants to know why a reliable supply of clean water to Monrovia’s slums remains outside the reach of government and aid agencies. I met Tecee at the Liberian Women’s Democracy radio station on the outskirts of the capital. Her drive to report about Liberians’ daily struggle to find clean water was undoubtedly shaped by growing up in a war zone.

TECEE BOLEY, Liberian radio journalist: When the war was really hot in Liberia, I would get up early morning to fetch water for my mom. As soon as the shooting subsides, I would go sneak, get a bucket or two, and come indoors. There was no other alternative. We needed the water. Otherwise, we would die.

STEVE SAPIENZA: During the war, tens of thousands of Liberians fled the violence in rural areas in search of food and shelter in the capital. A decade later, Monrovia’s slums remain badly overcrowded, and those who eluded war now face new dangers.

TECEE BOLEY: There’s a high demand for clean water now in these areas because the population overstressed the already limited services.

STEVE SAPIENZA: At the Randalls Road slum, a group of war amputees tells Tecee that their pump hasn’t worked in over one month, a heavy burden to those living on less than a dollar a day.

TECEE BOLEY: The water source itself, when we went to that community, you see there is a hole dug around the well. That means somebody who is physically challenged can’t get there to get the water.

MAN: To get water here is hard. I have to pay someone to get to the well and buy the water and bring it to us, so that we can get water to take bath.

STEVE SAPIENZA: 18 percent of all deaths here are caused by waterborne illnesses like diarrhea, malaria and cholera, according to the World Health Organization.

One recent World Bank study found E. coli, an indicator of widespread fecal contamination, in 58 percent of water sources across Monrovia. These are sobering statistics for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is recognized internationally for her work on water issues.

She pledged in 2008 that water access in Liberia would double in four years. Achieving this target is the job of the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation and its managing director, Nortu Jappah.

TECEE BOLEY: I visited a community yesterday, and I want to know why the water supply to that community is irregular.

NORTU JAPPAH, managing director, Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation: Okay, so I think I have talked about the issue of our capacity issue. We ration water. Most of our infrastructure have lived their useful lives, and at the end of the day, most of it needs to be replaced. And we have had constant breakdowns of machines and pumps.

And so it’s our plan that once we have some of these technical issues reckoned with or so, we will be able to get water to Monrovia in its entirety.

TECEE BOLEY: How soon do we expect to see. . .

NORTU JAPPAH: I would assume that probably just by the end of the year.

STEVE SAPIENZA: As proof the government was on target, Mr. Jappah cited a recent project.

NORTU JAPPAH: For the past 21 years, there has not been water on the Somalia Drive area. Just recently, the president and I, we dedicated or opened the first water main since 1990, so people along the Somalia Drive now have pipe-borne water.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Curious to see if rhetoric matched reality, Tecee left the interview and went straight to Somalia Drive. After several hours of fruitless searching, she found no evidence of water flowing from city pipes to local taps.

TECEE BOLEY: Since the war, it only came once.

Tecee did find a local man profiting from the water shortage by reselling bags of water. But he also had seen no proof the city was pumping water to his neighborhood.

MAN: Before the war, there was water all around here, but now we don’t know what is the problem.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Kulah Borbor fled heavy fighting in the interior during Liberia’s civil war and came to West Point, one of Monrovia’s largest slums. She arrived with her husband and four young children, only to face another battle.

KULAH BORBOR, Liberia: When we get here, we started drinking good water. It went bad with a bug that hit our stomach, so he didn’t make it.

STEVE SAPIENZA: When cholera took Kulah’s husband, she thought about going back to her village. But she stayed, and now teaches her neighbors how to purify water and prevent deadly diarrhea in infants. This is lifesaving knowledge in a slum of 60,000 people, where most residents buy suspect water from vendors or fetch water from dirty wells.

TECEE BOLEY: How do you feel when you save someone’s life with that solution you made there?

KULAH BORBOR: I feel happy because I don’t want people to be like me. So, I feel happy, because when I lose my husband, I suffer with my children.

TECEE BOLEY: And the president said that there are water supply to a community like West Point. And, clearly, we went to West Point. There is no pipe water there. There’s no pipe water. The people in West Point will have to buy the five-gallon container of water.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Unfortunately, the rising urban population and waterborne illnesses are spreading faster than city pipes.

TECEE BOLEY: Some of these people who work in government, they have people who are working under them in the various departments. They come back and paint a picture like everything is fine. And, actually, they are not fine. I think the bosses themselves have to go on the field and see the reality.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Tecee’s reporting exposes the gap between the Liberian government’s claim it has addressed critical water problems, and the actual conditions faced by Monrovia’s residents.

Until the government solves the problems, many more Liberians who fled the war, leaving towns and villages behind, risk losing their lives to a new foe: unsafe water.

GWEN IFILL: You can learn more about West Africa’s struggles to get access to safe drinking water. There’s a link to the Pulitzer Center’s stories on our website.