Water and power shortages blamed on drought

A year after the most severe drought in Guinea's recorded history, the two hydro-electric dams that supply the capital with water and electricity are nearly dry. Most of the city's two million inhabitants have been without light or water for the past six months.

At night Conakry hums to the sound of private generators providing electricity for those wealthy enough to afford them. But most of the city's tumbledown houses have to make do with the dancing flames of small paraffin lamps.

By day children totter along the streets with buckets of murky well water balanced on their heads, since the taps are often dry for several days at a time. And by night, unable to read at home, some of them gather to study under the floodlights of petrol stations.

The crisis has made the government of President Lansana Conte a sudden convert to environmental issues. It blames the drought and climate change for the calamity which has befallen Conakry. An ageing and poorly maintained thermal power station still provides electricity on a more or less regular basis for the city centre and the diplomatic quarter, but it burns imported oil which this impoverished West African country can ill afford.

Seldom a week passes by without a well-publicised government conference or workshop to discuss the environment and the need to conserve forests and plant more trees around dams and along river banks.

However, as Guinea marked World Environment Day on June 5, many of its seven million inhabitants were more inclined to blame years of government neglect and rampant corruption for the water and power shortages rather than the weather.

Guinea after all is a country of green forest-clad mountains where mighty rivers rise that empty into mangrove swamps along the coast. It is also the birth place of the Niger, the biggest river in West Africa, which swings north into the fringes of the Sahara desert before emptying into the sea in Nigeria.

What everyone agrees on - the government, the opposition and the diplomatic community - is that the situation is much worse than it might otherwise be because Guinea is starved of foreign aid. The reason for this is no secret either.

Guinea became the first French colony in Africa to gain independence in 1958 - when it roundly rejected proposals by the then French President Charles De Gaulle for autonomy within a sort of French commonwealth. Ever since then its government, first under President Ahmed Sekou Toure, and since his death in 1984 under Conte, has proudly charted its own independent course.

"I have been involved here since the beginning of the revolution and I can tell you that no-one is going to tell us what to do," said Emile Tompapa, a veteran journalist who fought alongside Sekou Toure for independence from France and who now heads the government's media watchdog, the National Council for Communications.

This proud and independent attitude is reflected by many senior government officials, who are determined that Guinea should never bow to demands from the Western powers that once ruled Africa.

"When Nelson Mandela was released from jail he traveled the world on a Guinean passport," Kiridi Bangoura, the secretary general (top civil servant) at the Ministry of the Interior, is pleased to point out.

For nearly 30 years, with strong support from the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, Guinea ploughed its own course. But following the collapse of communism in Moscow, the aid dried up. Since then, Conte has developed a warm relationship with the United States, which provides Guinea with military and other assistance. But overall donor support for the government, like Conakry's water supply, has been reduced to a trickle.

"We are all confronted by the same problem of poor management. There is nothing to be done about it," sighed one senior UN official, who is based in Conakry.

Donors despair of persuading the 68-year-old president to adopt reforms that would improve the transparency and efficiency of his government and give greater freedom to the opposition parties whose existence has been tolerated since 1991. A few key measures would suffice to open the floodgates of economic assistance.

"We have 260 million euros (US $300 million) of aid that is blocked until the government opens up the air waves (to allow private radio stations) and creates an independent electoral commission," said one veteran official at the European Union delegation in Conakry. But he was not hopeful that the threat of losing so much cash would change attitudes. "Personally, I have lost all my illusions in Guinea," he sighed.

Exports of bauxite, diamonds and gold meanwhile provide the country with a limited independent source of foreign exchange, much of which goes into equipping the army.

Despite the government's gut resistance to taking orders from abroad, external pressure for reform is increasing as Guinea approaches presidential elections in December.

Speculation over who will succeed Conte, who came to power in a military coup 19 years ago is mounting.

The president has suffered long-term health problems and he admitted publicly in December that he was unwell. Diplomats say he has received extensive treatment in recent years for heart problems and diabetes.

Conte has not groomed any obvious successor, so even if he does decide to stand for a further five-year term, the intensity of the debate about who will succeed him is unlikely to diminish.

Foreign governments, both within West Africa and further afield, are particularly anxious to achieve a smooth succession in order to prevent Guinea from succumbing to the overspill of civil war in neighbouring Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire.

Liberian-backed rebels attempted unsuccessfully to seize the diamond fields of eastern Guinea three years ago. Diplomats say that since then Guinea has been a staunch supporter of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement which is fighting to oust President Charles Taylor.

Meanwhile, the impoverished farming communities along Guinea's long borders with Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire have had to play host to over 100,000 refugees from the conflicts in these neighbouring countries. They have also had to accommodate many of the 100,000 or more Guinean nationals who fled Cote d'Ivoire after fighting broke out there last September.

Government and UN officials alike warn of the danger of rising tensions between the refugees, who have received considerable international aid, and the equally poor and destitute Guinean villagers, whose meagre living standards have declined even further following the influx of displaced people.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) appealed in November for US $54 million to help Guinea cope with the influx of people fleeing from conflict elsewhere in the region. But so far only a third of this amount has been pledged - mainly in the form of food and other assistance for the refugees rather than their hard-pressed host population.

"Guinean communities particularly in the N'Zerekore region (near the Ivorian border) and close to the refugee camps, are struggling to cope with disruption of their livelihoods and resources caused by the influx and transit of people," OCHA said in a review of the situation last month.