Opinion: A complex WASH sector could hamper Ghana’s fight against COVID-19

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Water collection at a hand-dug well in the Kassena Nankana district of Ghana. Photo by: Axel Fassio / CIFOR / CC BY-NC-ND

As part of the war against COVID-19, Ghana has taken several actions: President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo established a coronavirus fund to alleviate hardship and donated three months of his own salary, while a separate 1.2 billion Ghanaian cedi (over $205 million) Coronavirus Alleviation Programme includes funds to pay for water bills for all Ghanaians for three months — from April to June — and to provide water tanker services to vulnerable communities.

This resolves the affordability challenge for those with access to safe water. Sadly, it does nothing for those many vulnerable rural and peri-urban communities where water tanker services are not available.

I can only hope that the necessary institutional alliances and relationships will be created to push the reforms in the sector and clear the systemic bottlenecks that hold the sector back.

According to a report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, 8% of the Ghana population have limited access to water, while 10% depend on unimproved or surface water. Forty-two percent of Ghanaians have limited access to handwashing facilities and 17% have no access at all, and even among the 42%, it is unclear how many practice hand-washing on a regular basis.

These people face a daunting challenge in protecting themselves during the coronavirus crisis. And the speed with which temporary hand-washing facilities are being delivered to health care centers, public institutions, and public places is itself clear evidence of historic weaknesses in our WASH system.

More in-depth for Pro subscribers: Is better hygiene here to stay?

In a bid to keep COVID-19 at bay, more hand-washing is taking place than ever before. But without increased efforts and investment, experts are not sure that this will last beyond the pandemic to impact other diseases.

One challenge is the complexity of governance in the WASH sector. The Ministry of Sanitation and Water Resources was charged to operationalize the free water directive in collaboration with agencies and local governments. However, the delivery of water is dependent on multiple organizations with overlaps and unclear roles in some cases, particularly in the rural water subsector where provision is more diverse.

The Ghana Water Company is solely responsible for the management of urban water services as it virtually owns and manages all the 90 urban water systems, supported by 15 administrative regions across the country. It has a customer base of over 700,000 households with tap connections — which is relatively high. The company has a well-regulated tariff regime, a comprehensive billing system, and a procedure for payment. Even with this large number of connections, they will be able to implement the presidential subsidy on water with minimal challenges as a result of their well-organized database and unified administrative system.

However, in rural and small towns where there is a more diverse provision, there is no easy solution. There are 28,473 boreholes, 3,993 hand-dug wells, 126 small community pipe schemes, 381 small town pipe schemes, and 526 limited mechanized systems under different management models. These figures demonstrate a fragmented patchwork, coupled with incomplete and inconsistent data on who is producing what, when, how, and where. The poor operational and financial records on the systems makes it difficult to implement the directive of free water. This may hinder the system operator’s ability to present accurate information to receive reimbursement of the cost of their operations after the free water period.

Under ongoing rural water utility management reforms, 182 of the rural and small-town water systems are under the direct management of the Community Water and Sanitation Agency. The majority are under local government oversight, who have delegated management responsibilities to water and sanitation management teams and private contractors.

The tariff regime is fragmented because each of the 260 district assemblies sets its own arrangements. Some of the 460 water systems under NGO and private sector arrangements are even outside the local government management and their operations are unregulated.

In addition, local governments are politically answerable to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. The Community Water and Sanitation Agency on the other hand falls under the Ministry of Sanitation and Water Resources.

What does a COVID-19 response look like with limited water?

Much of what is needed in the COVID-19 response includes programming the WASH sector already has in place, but WASH professionals need to reenvision their strategies — and to do it quickly.

Without an overall responsible agency and comprehensive information on the operations of the systems, it becomes abundantly clear how complex it is to implement the president’s directive in the rural sub-sector.

Many sector practitioners, informed by research, attribute the rural water sub-sector challenges to the community-owned and managed operational model, underpinned by the principles of subsidiarity and voluntarism. This was effective at one stage but has perhaps reached its limit.

In 2017, CWSA initiated reforms that seek, among other things, to expand its mandate to include the management of piped water systems whilst maintaining the community’s role in providing and managing point source water systems. As expected in any reform initiative, there is push back, but the government is committed to bringing some sanity and harmony at that level.

In the short term, the president’s directive for free water services must be implemented despite these challenges. The leading actors are devising all means to ensure fairness and equity while ensuring that the financial sustainability of the existing facilities is not jeopardized.

In the longer term, I can only hope that the necessary institutional alliances and relationships will be created to push the reforms in the sector and clear the systemic bottlenecks that hold the sector back.

Going forward, it will be necessary to have a clear communication strategy for how to transition back from free water to a culture where customers once more pay a fair price for water. It will also be important to understand the impact of the free water policy on the finance and operations of the systems and make provisions to address any financial shock that may have arisen to ensure the financial sustainability of the water systems and the utilities.

If this is achieved, one day we will look back and reflect on a robust WASH system driving the delivery of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene services for everyone in Ghana as one of the COVID-19 legacies.

About the author

  • Vida Duti

    Vida Duti is the country director of IRC Ghana, an independent, nonprofit WASH organization that works with partners in countries including Ghana, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, India, and Honduras. Duti is an expert in governance and systems development with over 20 years of national and international experience working in community development and poverty reduction; capacity development of local government actors; public sector reforms; and water service governance.