To govern or not to govern?

By Dr. Jenny Grönwall

In the ideal world of many city planners, piped water reaches all residents and the responsibility for O&M is clear. What does it mean, then, to have to access water from a multitude of different sources – or to be a reseller of a service that is much in demand – but have nowhere to turn with questions and complaints about this basic human right, no-one to hold accountable?

Dodowa, which sits in the northern part of the Accra Plains in Ghana, serves to illustrate a complex governance landscape characterised by unclear, overlapping and uncoordinated roles in the water services provisioning, along with parallel and more or less unresponsive public and private actors and a lack of involvement and transparency. In short, this problem originates from Dodowa being a peri-urban but rapidly growing and largely unplanned place where a number of authorities work more or less in silos.

In the picture above we see a young woman who is making her income from being a middleman between the Ghana Water Company and the end-consumers. She has a contract for piped supply at a commercial rate and has invested in a polytank with taps for storage. It enables her to provide a service around the clock though the water is only distributed irregularly and often at low pressure. When the water does not come for several days, she can turn to the Company to make a complaint; however, the Company does not assume responsibility to her customers, the water users.

Urban dwellers tend to be disadvantaged in terms of public service delivery, often relying instead on groundwater. Many people in Dodowa live too far away from the piped water points or they simply choose to self-supply from dug wells and boreholes. This can function as a convenient, affordable coping mechanism with the users in many ways in control of the source (if not the groundwater resource as such).

Dodowa’s residents were self-sufficient from wells and boreholes until the distribution network was linked to the main grid in 2015. The findings of this study suggest that piped water supplies just over half the population, while the District Assembly and individuals add ever-more groundwater abstraction points. The vast majority of households takes a “combinator approach” to access water from different sources. An increasing user preference for packaged (sachet) water completes the picture of real-life conditions at the outskirts of the Greater Accra Region, but also of a low-income area that is comparatively well off in terms of water in quantitative terms.

The man in this picture is carrying a bag of 500 ml sachet, most probably bought from one of the mobile vendor that are often seen in Dodowa. 96% of respondents in our household survey bought such water, a trend growing stronger in the past decade – but simultaneously, three quarters said that the water obtained from their main source of water was fit for drinking. Ongoing research into the quality of the groundwater will provide a better picture of whether it is potable as is in all places, and the next step thereafter for the T-GroUP is to try to engage stakeholders in Learning Alliances, and ultimately involve users more in planning and decision making.

However, with parallel bodies tasked with water provisioning and governance, the reliance on wells and boreholes among poor (peri-) urban users has for long been lost in aggregate statistics, making those accountable unresponsive to strategic planning requirements for groundwater as a resource, and to those using it. This means that the end-users’ specific needs and opportunities—and own level of responsibility—are seldom on the agenda. To govern or not to govern groundwater should not be a question to be responded to at whim.

I carried out the research for this paper during October 2015, with heavy El Niño rains interrupting field work and daily life at many occasions. It is based on secondary sources and interviews conducted with research assistant Janix Asare and a household survey covering 300 respondents carried out with T-GroUP researchers Drs. Sampson Oduro-Kwarteng and George Lutterodt. Special thanks go to the assistants Seth Adjei and Francis Andorful, and M.Sc. students Shona Jenkins, Obed Minkah and Alimamy Kamara as well as Dr. Maryam Nastar.

Self-supply and accountability: to govern or not to govern groundwater for the (peri-) urban poor in Accra, Ghana. Available with Open Access from Environmental Earth Sciences, 75(16), 1-10.