Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink

It's the rainy season in Guinea, one of West Africa's wettest countries, but the taps in many of its towns have run dry.

Guinea is nicknamed West Africa's "water tower" because it contains the headwaters of a number of the region's major rivers, including the Senegal and the Niger. In parts of the country's interior, average annual rainfall is close to four metres.

And yet, breakdowns at the national water company's treatment centres have left major towns in the interior like Kindia and Labe with little or no running water for weeks. N'zerekore, near the Liberian border, has been without for the last five years.

This paradox is par for the course in a country where, despite large reserves of bauxite, gold, and diamonds, the majority of people live on less than a dollar a day.

Even the capital has not escaped the shortages. While the business districts have a fairly reliable infrastructure, residents of many of Conakry's areas find themselves forced to go looking for water.

"It's been two years since we had drinkable water in our neighbourhood," Thiany Yansane, a local councillor, told IRIN. "That's why I always keep jerry-cans in my car in order to fill them up with water at the office."

Mohammed Dangoura, a Red Cross official in Conakry, says that there are two reasons, both linked to the country's poverty, for people's inability to get access to proper drinking water. First, the vast majority simply do not have the money to pay for the service. And second, the national water company cannot afford to provide it.

Lack of access

In a report released in June, the international think-tank Crisis Group warned that Guinea was on the verge of becoming West Africa's next failed state.

Lansana Conte, Guinea's president since coming to power in a 1984 coup, is seriously ill and lacks a clear successor while the opposition has yet to provide a strong alternative. The combination leaves the future uncertain and the present increasingly difficult as the state breaks down.

"This (water issue) is not out of character with the problems that Guineans are living with in every aspect of their lives," said Mike McGovern, the West Africa project director at Crisis Group, adding that similar difficulties exist in other areas like transportation, health and education.

"There's no real excuse for the current problems," McGovern told IRIN. "The bottom line is it's a very rich country that should have the ability to provide things for its people and it's not doing it."

While water cuts are not uncommon in Guinea, the present shortages are especially difficult for this mostly Islamic country as last week marked the beginning of Ramadan, a period in which many Muslims go without food and drink during daylight hours. As evening falls and the fast is broken, people require access to water for replenishment, a fact which the government readily admits.

"We have called together officials from the interior of the country to ensure that everybody has access to water during the holy month of Ramadan," Fatoumata Binta Diallo, Guinea's energy minister, told IRIN last week.

But one week into this year's fasting period, the problem had not been solved and the government decided on Monday to replace the heads of the troubled water and electric companies.

The utility's ex-director, Acheick Mouctar Youla, speaking to IRIN shortly before the high-level reshuffle, admitted to some supply problems, which he blamed on poor maintenance and the soaring cost of fuel necessary to keep the treatment centres running. He said the 24 facilities in the country's interior require 10,000 litres per month, leaving the company with a tab of close to US$ 9,000.

Problems not new

But the country's water problems date back to before the recent surge in world oil prices.

A rocky relationship between the government and foreign companies, qualified as disastrous by Crisis Group's McGovern, led to terminated contracts and the nationalisation of the country's utilities at the end of 2000. The results of the change, however, have been less than stellar.

"It's only got worse since they left," McGovern said.

According to water company officials who wished to remain anonymous, the utility's current financial woes are due to poor management and difficulties collecting revenue as a result of the number of people who siphon off water supplies illegally.

McGovern said the Guinean government's decision to nationalise its utilities was in keeping with a tradition of blaming problems on foreigners to cover up bad governance.

"But the large majority of Guineans no longer buy that rhetoric and that's an important development," he told IRIN.

That development may explain some of this week's moves. In addition to replacing the heads of the national utilities, the government announced on Tuesday that it had settled a long-running feud with three foreign energy companies.

The French Saur and Electricite de France (EDF) and the Canadian Hydro-Quebec agreed to waive 70 per cent of the debt they claimed to be owed by the government, leaving a total of 3 million euros ($3.6 million) to be repaid over the next 36 months.

In recent years, corruption and the lack of democracy have made foreign donors increasingly reluctant to lend money to Guinea but EDF representative Andre Jaujay said that this new deal could help to change all that.

"With foreign loans serving as a foundation, our companies will be happy to be serious partners in Guinea," he said, speaking on behalf of the three multinationals at the signing of the accord.

But still, there is no water.