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GUINEA-BISSAU: Instability deprives people of clean water

BISSAU, 31 March 2009 (IRIN) - With 80 percent of the Guinea Bissau capital’s water contaminated with harmful bacteria, residents are used to outbreaks of cholera and other deadly diarrhoeal diseases, but donors say they can fund major infrastructure projects only if stability can be guaranteed.

The most recent cholera outbreak, which the government declared over in early February 2009, killed 225 people and infected some 14,000, most of them in the capital Bissau. The severity of recent epidemics has pushed some donors to invest more despite continued uncertainty, but donors remain reticent.

Political instability marked by coups, counter-coups and political assassinations has contributed to the government’s inability to deliver basic services across the country.

“The country has been experiencing continuing instability,” said Silvia Luciani, head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Guinea-Bissau. “This doesn’t allow putting in place large-scale infrastructure systems. To attract big donors, you need to guarantee a long period of stability…You can’t lay water pipes in one month.”

Diarrhoeal diseases constitute one of the main causes of child mortality and morbidity in Guinea-Bissau, which has the world’s fifth-highest level of child mortality with almost one in five children dying before age five.

Wells contaminated

Most Bissauan families draw water from shallow wells they build themselves – often constructed dangerously close to latrines – with population growth in the capital exacerbating the situation, Luciani told IRIN.

Bernardino dos Santos, director of water association Regional Centre for Low-cost Water and Sanitation (CREPA), said 80 percent of the city wells are contaminated with harmful bacteria.

“These days we hardly ever get water during the day,” said Antonio Goia, a resident of the Caracol neighbourhood in southwest Bissau. “To wash we have to get water from a well, and to drink it is hard to find any clean water at all.”

No electricity, salaries, phones

The problem is the government is poor, donors say. Cashew exports and fishing rights make up most of the state’s revenue, which is not enough to cover government salaries, much less new infrastructure.

International donors cover most civil servants’ salaries in Guinea-Bissau, Antongiulio Marin, head of infrastructure for the European Commission, told IRIN.

Payment systems for water and electricity supply are in place but do not work properly, says Cesario Sa, director of Water and Electricity services (EAGB) in Bissau. “Collecting revenue for water is not possible in many cases because we do not have the financial resources or capacity to do so.”

This low capacity is fuelled by continued political volatility and makes helping ministries on a large scale very difficult, donors say. Donors like the EC have been forced to take a project-by-project approach to water provision, Marin said.

“If you go to the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources [which manages water supply] you will find little to no equipment and officials who are not motivated and hardly paid; who have no telephones, computers or electricity; who are educated to a low standard and hardly trained; and who have very little management expertise,” Marin told IRIN.

When donors do engage, he said, they have to cover everything, down to civil servants’ commuting costs.

The EC works with NGOs Médicos del Mundo and the Spanish Red Cross on rural water and sanitation projects, and with the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources to build solar-powered water points and pumps in and around Bafat and Biombo, 80km and 25km from the capital, respectively; and to support rural community water management committees.

But two severe cholera epidemics in four years have propelled donors to increase water-infrastructure investments. The EC just signed a US$3.9-million project to boost the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry’s water management capacity, and to continue  rural water support.

The World Bank is about to start building water reservoirs in Bissau and 24km of water pipes at a cost of nearly $6 million, according to Joao Antonio da Silva, technical assistant for EAGB, which works with the World Bank. The construction of two reservoirs for Luanda and Bairro de Ajuda, on the outskirts of the capital, has just been completed, he said.

Meanwhile NGOs and aid agencies, including CREPA, Médicos del Mundo and UNICEF, continue to fill in some of the water supply gaps around the country by building closed wells, water pumps and latrines in schools and villages.

“The will is there to improve water and sanitation,” said UNICEF’s Luciani. “If the situation stays calm, this type of interventions can start.”

Bissau resident Jose Antonio Borges told IRIN the population cannot afford more delays. “Guinea-Bissau has been facing an electricity crisis since 1998. But this year it is the water crisis that is worst of all because it affects everyone across the country…We can accept the energy crisis, but without water, we cannot live.”

dab/aj/np

Theme (s): Conflict, Economy, Governance, Urban Risk, Water & Sanitation,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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