Water for the people

‘Water is part of life. It is part of our cultural celebration. It is part of our attachment to the earth and to the moon.’ Charles Abugre, of the Ghanaian organization Isodec, explains why incipient water privatization is sparking popular resistance in the country’s capital, Accra. ‘This issue has a popular resonance. People realize there is a division between rich and poor, and this even affects whether you can access something as integral to life itself as water.’

Ghana qualifies as a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC), due for partial debt relief under a World Bank initiative to ease the debt burden of the world’s poorest countries. The World Bank attaches conditions to this debt relief. In this case private-sector participation in water provision must be promoted or else the Ghanaian Government will not be allowed to access loans.

The World Bank is lending $100 million for the rehabilitation of water facilities prior to privatization. Abugre says, ‘There is a lot at stake. The Government is broke and $100 million is a lot of money. It just picked up the privatization process and decided to fast-track it even though there was no major debate about this.’

The transnational water companies bidding for the urban water service in Accra are Crédit Lyonnais, Biwater, Vivendi, Saur and Zurichs (an Enron subsidiary).

But they may not have an easy ride.

‘When the World Bank came and told us we were a Highly Indebted Poor Country, Ghanaians were offended,’ says Abugre. ‘In our culture that concept means you are unable to do anything for yourself. For the last 20 years people have been bleeding under the World Bank’s structural-adjustment programmes, but we were being told that Ghana was a structural-adjustment success story. Suddenly people are saying, “If we now need assistance as a highly indebted poor country, then why are they putting yet more conditions like privatization on to our debt relief? This is just another agenda to control our lives.”

‘This has been a very radicalizing moment in Ghanaian society. So much so that at a grassroots level people make jokes about HIPC and say “We are highly indebted poor citizens.” People are now making conscious links between our country’s debt, the World Bank, the IMF, globalization, and the privatization going on in many sectors. And resistance to the privatization of water has become a symbol of resistance against externally imposed agendas.’

A huge mobilization is building. Local radio stations buzz with daily phone-ins. Trade unions are getting involved. The Church has taken up the cause as a moral and ethical issue. A vigorous four-day debate in Accra led to the creation of the Ghana National Coalition Against the Privatization of Water. Thousands of urban poor turned up to the public meeting, which ended with singing and dancing in the streets. Abugre concludes: ‘Right now we are looking at a legal injunction against privatization. But we will also have to take this to the streets.’

Charles Abugre says the popular feeling is this: ‘The idea that a foreign company will decide whether I get water or whether I don’t get water, when they are pumping that water from my rivers and my streams and turning it into something that I don’t have access to when I can’t pay – it’s outrageous. What right does this company have to do that?

‘Privatization is going too far. When they cross that line, they incur the resistance of the people.’

*Charles Abugre* talked to Katharine Ainger

New Internationalist issue 337 magazine cover This article is from the August 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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