The Environmental Cost Of Sierra Leone’s Water Poverty

By James Tamba Lebbie…….

In his address in December on the occasion of the State Opening of the First Session of the Fourth Parliament of the Second Republic of Sierra Leone (whatever that means), in December 2012, this is what President Ernest Bai Koroma said in December about providing water for the people of Sierra Leone:

“My Government will continue to tap the full potential of our surface and underground water resources with a view to contributing to increased national revenue and promoting the livelihoods of the people. We will invest in the improvement of potable water supply systems across the country. We will promote affordable water technologies to ensure that the poor benefit from improved access. We will promote greater investment in water for hydro-power and growth to increase electricity supply. Additionally, steps would be taken to ensure responsible water management in order to sustain the range of economic services provided by water (irrigation, energy production etc.) as well as the livelihoods and well-being of the poorest populations. We will promote conservation and enhancement of “natural infrastructure” -aquifers, watersheds, lakes and wetlands – as a sound investment to complement and, in some cases, substitute for artificial storage”.

This is President Koroma after his re-election into office for another five-year term. But some five years after this government was first elected into office, Sierra Leone probably finds itself squarely in a situation once depicted by the late Reggae Icon, Bob Nester Marley in his music, “Rat Race”, when he said “in the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty….”

This assertion is borne out of the fact that although the country has a climate that is blessed with a six-month rain fall (and nine months in certain areas), the daily toil of school going kids and adults alike with jerry cans in their hands and scouting for water to do their domestic chores from Calaba Town in the east to Goderich in the far west of Freetown should be a scar on the conscious of any responsible government.

In my previous article that looked at the state of our toilets as one of the implications of water poverty, I outlined two factors as being responsible for such an unhygienic condition – our personal indifferences and the inability of the government to provide a basic necessity for its people apparently because of the absence of a comprehensive policy to address the vexed issue of water shortage in Freetown. The thesis of this piece is to further highlight the indifferences of the relatively small middle class and the few ruling elite to the problem of water shortage in the country, thereby and how such practices have environmental degradation as a consequence.

The country’s middle class is shying away from holding the government accountable to its pledge of ensuring that the people, especially the poor, benefit from improved access to water. This is probably because many of them have small utility vans (suvs) which they could use to transport water in jerry cans to their homes for domestic use. And in terms of drinking purposes, they have also adjusted their lifestyle to drinking packaged water which they can readily afford. Such a lifestyle has no doubt, encouraged the proliferation of different brand names of water in plastic bottles and sachets (from Grafton and Luvian to Aqua and Family Fresh) and by extension, a booming water industry in the country’s urban cities.

Marketers have had us believe that mineral water is hygienic and in many instances, it is associated with social status and prestige while some people drink it for the sake of convenience. However, with the decline in standards and the corrupt nature of our public institutions and agencies, the question I keep asking myself (and I would imagine many who drink mineral water) is, whether the country’s Consumer Protection Agency has a serious regulatory regime for providing oversight of the countless brands of packaged water in supermarkets, shops and in street corners.

Meanwhile, research has shown that bottled water is not better than tap water for many reasons even if some of the reasons do not resonate in Sierra Leone. In an article titled “5 reasons not to drink bottled water” and published on “Mother and Nature Network”, Chris Baskind points out that bottled water is by far cheaper than tap water. He argues that bottled water is not of good values because of it price, adding that it is not healthier than tap water contrary to what marketers have made us to believe through branding, probably because regulatory agencies charged with the responsibility to provide consumer protection are ineffective at best. Baskind also notes that relying on bottled water means paying less attention to public systems, adding that bottled water means the “corporatization of water”. Baskind’s last point, which is most applicable to Sierra Leone is the fact that that bottled or packaged water means garbage.

This last point brings me to the environmental cost a failed public system to provide water for its people. Although there is no statistics or data on the quantum of waste disposal in Freetown, the sheer number of mineral water companies is enough to illustrate the millions of tons of plastic waste generated every year with severe consequences for the environment.

In an article titled “Bottled Water versus Tap Water: Advantages and Disadvantages” and published by “Water Benefits Health”, “the other significant cost of bottled water has to do with its impact on our environment”, because millions of tons of plastic water bottles are disposed of every year in addition to the grim fact that most plastic takes more than one hundred years to degrade. According to “Water Benefits Health”, plastic leaks “phthalates and other synthetic chemicals into the groundwater, which ends up in our tap water”. The article points out that “massive amounts of fossil fuels are used to make, store, transport and deliver bottled water”, which also contributes to pollution and by extension, the depletion of the ozone layer.

Another consequence to the environment in Sierra Leone and particularly in Freetown, is that flooding is common during the raining season at the slightest down pour. This is because when plastics are littered all around the place due to the reckless behaviour of consumers and the inefficient nature of our waste management agencies, they get buried in the soil with the passage of time and therefore makes it almost impossible for water to percolate in the soil. This therefore begs the question as to whether the government or the private sector can consider recycling of plastic waste as a waste management strategy.

A couple of days ago, I was watching CNN late at night when I saw plastic wastes being used as a material for tar for the rehabilitate feeder roads in India. The engineer in charge of the construction company told the reporter that dissolved plastic bottles are even stronger for tarmac on roads than the traditional bitumen. Sierra Leone may not copy the Indian style but other measures and policies can be introduced to address the filth and hazards which plastic water bottles and sachets pose for our environment. And it is not too late for the relevant line ministries to pull their resources and energies together for the sake of saving our environment; after all, living in a clean environment is a Fourth Generation right for all mankind.