A model for water provision in urban Africa?

For some people attempts at water privatisation are as dirty as the water across much of sub-Saharan Africa, but in Senegal everyone from the World Bank to the consumer in the street is gushing about the developments made in recent years.

"From a state of deficit prior to 1996 the water sector is now in the black and water needs for the capital Dakar are covered through until 2015," Habib Sy, the minister for agriculture and water, told IRIN on Tuesday, World Water Day.

A public private partnership (PPP) has been operating in Senegal since 1996, with Senegalaise des Eaux (SDE), a subsidiary of Saur International, as the private element. It does not own the water system but manages it on a 10-year lease contract with the Senegalese government with a unique clause which allows the government to fine SDE if it fails to hit performance targets.

"A performance contract has never been used before like this and initially there was a lot of scepticism, but it has proved to be very effective," explained Frederic Renaut, Managing Director of SDE.

When Saur - a French transnational and the fourth largest water company in the world - came to Senegal in 1996, the water system was suffering from a lack of investment with leaky pipes and broken infrastructure. Water cuts were common as supply could not meet demand.

But today, water cuts are rare and more of Dakar is connected to a clean water supply than ever before, with careful measures to make sure that poor areas of town are not overlooked.

Between 1996 and 2003, water production has increased by 18 percent with 81,000 new household connections and 400 standpipes according to the World Bank.

Such success stories are rare. WaterAid, an international non-governmental organisation, says that the effects of water privatisation have varied so widely that even international private companies are seeking alternative approaches.

But Senegal's success is being trumpeted.

"The sector is remarkable here in Senegal. The PPP is functioning well and other countries are looking at the success of Senegal to copy it," said Michel Wormser, director of the World Bank's Private Sector and Infrastructures division, at a press conference in Dakar earlier this year.

Model to be duplicated

Saur also has operations in Mali, where they own the waterworks, and Cote d'Ivoire, where they just manage the system but without a performance contract. According to Renaut, Saur is aiming to copy the Senegalese model in these other two West African countries.

The bulk of the US $300 million invested in Senegal's water partnership has come from World Bank loans made to the Senegalese government. And the World Bank seems pleased with its project, noting in an evaluation report in December that "the Senegal case is regarded as a model of public-private partnership in sub-Saharan Africa".

One of the main criticisms of utility privatisation is that once the water system is being run to make profits, price hikes usually follow which hit hard in a country like Senegal where the average annual income is $550, according to the World Bank.

The Senegalese scheme has set up subsidies for low-consumption users, defined as those using less than 20 cubic metres per month. And price rises have been limited to no more than 3 percent per annum under the performance targets.

But because many of the poorest Senegalese have not been able to afford a tap from home and club together to use a communal standpipe, their combined consumption often makes them ineligible for the discounts.

"It is true that water provided directly to the home is now cheaper than standpipes which are managed by the men who sell by the bucket," said Renaut.

This is the case in Grand Yoff, a bustling district of Dakar that has a wide range of income groups. Mustafa Thiam is in his seventies and for 22 years he has been the guardian of a street standpipe. Initially he just kept an eye on the standpipe, to guard against vandalism, but now he sells the water by the bucket.

"I collect 30 CFA (60 cents) per 25 litre bucket and with that I pay the bill that comes at the end of the two months," he explains. "There is always a bit left over."

But he sells more than 20 cubic metres of water every two months, and so he and his customers do not benefit from all the subsidies available.

And more and more homes are joining the world of running water. In 2003, SDE calculated that free water installations for poor users, accounted for 85 percent of new water connections. For Thiam, that means his earnings are falling.

Mustafa Thiam with his wife, sits in the shade all day by his standpipe

Less dependent on street standpipes

"More people have taps in their houses now, so they don't come to me anymore" he explained, sat under a corrugated iron and cardboard lean-to, sheltering from the sun. From there, he can keep an eye on his standpipe, accompanied by his wife who hawks soap and strips of bark used as toothbrushes.

Aminata Seck and her five children live a few streets away. She no longer has to go out to the street standpipe now that her compound has a shared tap. All the residents are responsible for paying the bill although it took them some time to come up with a system for paying that everyone was happy with.

"It used to be that the bill was split equally among the four rooms in the courtyard," explained Seck, "But some people didn't pay up, or they complained that they were not using as much as others."

"It is my neighbour who is responsible for the payment of the bill and we put 25 CFA (50 cents) in the pot every time we fill up a bucket. It's fairer that way."

Seck prefers having the tap in the courtyard as it means less work for her carrying the water and it works out 5 CFA (10 cents) cheaper per bucket.

Their last bill was 20 cubic metres of water - just qualifying for full subsidies. However, in September when the weather is hotter and everyone is bathing two or three times day, their consumption is much higher and the money everyone puts in the box might have to be topped up with an extra contribution.

Aminata Seck fills up a bucket in her courtyard

Breaks in water supply rare

Nonetheless, Seck and Thiam agree that things are better then they were a few years ago with water cuts a one-off rather than a regular occurrence.

The biggest problem now facing Senegal is extending the success in urban areas to the poorer and sparsely populated countryside.

"We need to spread that development from Dakar to the countryside, with lots of consultation with the private sector and local communities," Gobin Nankani, the World Bank's vice president for Africa told the press conference.

The government has set objectives.

"Currently 56 percent of the rural population has adequate water provision, but we hope by 2015 this will have risen to 82 percent," Agriculture and Water Minister Sy told IRIN.

However, coming up with a formula is proving difficult. Extending national infrastructure to dispersed low density populations is very expensive.

"Nobody has yet found the answer to rural water provision in Africa," said Renaut.

The importance of coming up with a solution has been rammed home in recent weeks in Touba, a city some 200 kilometres northeast of Dakar, where SDE do not operate and water provision remains a problem for its one million residents.

When a cholera outbreak erupted in Dakar in October 2004 it was brought under control in two months with only 6 deaths. However, in Touba, the water-borne disease has caused 17 deaths to date and remains a problem. Failure to bring the situation under control has been linked to the crumbling water system.