TOPICS > Health

What’s Causing Water Shortages in Ghana, Nigeria?

March 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two journalists investigate the challenges of bringing the most basic necessity to the people of Ghana and Nigeria: clean, safe water. As part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Steve Sapienza followed them as they searched for what's causing the water shortages.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next tonight, from West Africa, a look at the challenges of getting the most basic resource, water, to people who need it.

Special correspondent Steve Sapienza partnered with investigative journalists in two nations, Ghana and Nigeria, as they searched for what’s behind the water shortages.

His story is part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Every day, millions of people across a wide swathe of West Africa struggle to get access to clean and safe drinking water. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1,000 people in the region die each day from illnesses related to unsafe water.

The shortage is also hampering development here. In two of the biggest and richest nations of the region, Nigeria and Ghana, pollution, political unrest, and corruption have contributed to water shortages for decades.

What’s different today is that a new generation of West African journalists is trying to hold government officials accountable for the failures. We followed two of them, Nigeria’s Ameto Akpe and Ghana’s Samuel Agyemang, as they did their jobs.

As a reporter for Nigeria’s BusinessDay newspaper, Ameto’s stories target the contradiction of a country with immense oil wealth and great water resources that are not reaching their citizens.

We met in Abuja and traveled six hours by car to Makurdi, the capital of Benue State in north-central Nigeria.

AMETO AKPE, BusinessDay: The river Benue, which is one of the major rivers of Nigeria, runs through this town. The town sits on the banks of this major resource. However, the town brings to life a common proverb, which says, you sit by the riverside, yet you wash your hands with spittle.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Ameto chose to focus her reporting here on the Greater Makurdi Water Works project. It’s the latest government attempt to expand delivery of treated water from the Benue River to 600,000 residents, the majority of whom have waited decades to receive water from city pipes.

The previous attempt to build a water treatment plant ended in scandal in 2008, with an unfinished treatment facility and city officials unable to account for $6 million. This failure impacts hundreds of thousands of residents outside the reach of the city’s old pipe network, who now pay high prices for water delivery from tanker trucks or water pump operators. And those who can’t afford water delivery collect untreated water from the Benue River.

AMETO AKPE: I visited here, and I was shocked by what I saw. People were actually scooping water from the Benue River, which is massively polluted. And there are several occurrences every year of people dying of cholera, falling terribly sick from dysentery, typhoid fever.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The water minister of Benue State says the remedy is finishing the Greater Makurdi Water Works.

AMETO AKPE: So, in other words, this is an answer to the problem of water?

JOHN NGBEDE, commissioner of water resources: This is the answer to the problems of water in Makurdi. Now that we have built the water works, this water has to be sent out to the people.

STEVE SAPIENZA: But to do that, Makurdi needs a larger pipe network, and one that is in good condition.

NAT APIR, independent water consultant: These pipes have corroded, and so they cannot withstand any pressure of water coming out of the new treatment plant. So you will have them busting all over the place.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Former Coca-Cola executive Nat Apir is now an independent water engineer. He says the new water treatment plant will produce enough water, but it will have nowhere to go.

NAT APIR: The coverage of the pipes that were laid about 30 years ago is just about 25 to 30 percent of the metropolis and its environs, hence the need to lay new pipe networks.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Facing public criticism about the pipes, the government has asked contractors to submit proposals to expand the pipe network.

AMETO AKPE: And is there any time frame? Because people are waiting, people are expectant.

JOHN NGBEDE: No, but don’t worry, don’t worry. In the next six months, 12 months — it’s far. We are expecting that by the time we start pumping the water out. . .

AMETO AKPE: Experts say it may blow and. . .

JOHN NGBEDE: Pipes busting? I want to see that. I want to see that.

AMETO AKPE: You want to see that before you intervene?

It brings to mind an occurrence which — in the early ’90s in another locality very close to Makurdi, this great water project was commissioned. However, the day it was test-run, the whole city was — the whole town was flooded because the pipes busted, because some people say faulty technical work.

STEVE SAPIENZA: In the neighboring country of Ghana, residents of the capital, Accra, are frustrated with the government’s failure to provide a reliable supply of piped fresh water, this despite Ghana’s ample water resources and a steady flow of foreign aid for water projects.

About four years ago, when Accra was experiencing severe water shortages, the public named these containers Kufuor gallons after the sitting president. Now reporter Samuel Agyemang is asking why these containers are still found in area neighborhoods.

Samuel Agyemang is an award-winning reporter who anchors the national evening news for Metro TV.

SAMUEL AGYEMANG, Metro TV: Hello. Good evening. And welcome to the weekend news.

STEVE SAPIENZA: His investigation into illegal nighttime water tapping led him to pursue the much bigger problem of gaps in water access citywide. The story starts right in his own backyard, the seaside enclave known as Teshie.

SAMUEL AGYEMANG: Teshie is about — has a very huge population, close to 200,000, very diverse as well. It has a very poor community, has the middle-income folks, and then it also has the extreme rich.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Samuel’s neighborhood is fairly new and receives water from a city pipeline. The water supply is erratic, however, because the city has not kept up with the water demand of all the households and businesses in this growing city of nearly two million people.

SAMUEL AGYEMANG: Any time we get the water, like on Saturdays and Sundays, I store some of them in these bottles, and then I’m able to boil them any time I want to use them to cook or to drink.

And this is also another bucket where I have water in there. You can see it inside, so I can get like just a bucket or two of these, and then I use them to bathe in my bathroom.

STEVE SAPIENZA: A short drive from Samuel’s home sits the poorer, ramshackle seaside areas of Teshie.

When Samuel arrives, residents crowded around a newly-installed water tap outside a private home tell him they have waited 15 years for piped water. That meant walking to the nearest fresh water supply with buckets.

SAMUEL AGYEMANG: If you want to walk, it would you about how many minutes?

BOY: About one hour.

SAMUEL AGYEMANG: About one hour to get water, before you get water to bathe and go to school.

STEVE SAPIENZA: City taps that were once a faint promise are now a source of fresh income in this part of Teshie. Those lucky enough to have a tap on their property charge a small fee to their neighbors for a bucket of water.

Still, most of this community remains underserved by the Ghana Water Company, a state-run entity that Samuel discovered has been more successful at raking in foreign investment dollars than supplying water.

KWEKU BOTWE, Ghana Water Company: We are attracting a lot of investment like nobody’s business.

SAMUEL AGYEMANG: How do we close those gaps, you know, considering the sort of investments that we are attracting like nobody’s business?

KWEKU BOTWE: There’s a lot of — there’s a lot of work being done. There are a lot of projects that are ongoing which can be delivered in the next two, three, four years.

SAMUEL AGYEMANG: So what happens to a community like Teshie, which has been in existence for a long, long time, one of very — very traditional, but hasn’t had water for 20 years?

KWEKU BOTWE: It is not true.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The reality on the ground is otherwise. Samuel says the problem is, officials are not accountable to the underserved communities.

SAMUEL AGYEMANG: You know, you go around talking to people that we have spent a night with, people we have spent days with struggling for water, and these people don’t have any sense of what the money is being used for, the taxpayers’ money. They don’t understand what project is supposed to come to them. They don’t see anybody to hold accountable and ask, why am I not getting water?

STEVE SAPIENZA: According to a 2010 study by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, $8 out of every $10 in the water sector budget here are from foreign donors, who are not interested in building water pipelines in Accra.

Alban Bagbin is the minister of water, resources, works, and housing.

ALBAN BAGBIN, Minister of Water, Resources, Works, and Housing: Many of our development partners are interested in developing treatment plants, and not in supporting the expansion of the distribution network.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Nonetheless, Minister Bagbin predicts the country will reach 100 percent coverage by 2025.

One would only hope that, with confession and admission of the fact that investments are going to be — are coming into the water sector, authorities will — would make sure that in the very shortest possible time, we get 100 percent coverage of water supply.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Faced with the daily struggle to conserve water at home, reporter Samuel Agyemang has vowed to keep up the pressure on authorities until he and everyone living in neighborhoods across Accra have access to safe, clean water 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Friday, Nigeria’s president officially commissioned the Makurdi Water Works. But according to journalist Ameto Akpe, there’s been no change in water quality or supply for local residents because a pipe network remains to be built.