Photo: Dave Wendlinger.

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The western African nation of Ghana, tucked under the chin of the continent, is dominated by the enormous Lake Volta, a sprawling reservoir that arcs through the midsection of the country. Though there appears to be water, water everywhere, an estimated 70 percent of Ghana’s people lack access to clean, piped drinking water. Rudolf Amenga-Etego, a 40-year-old Ghanaian attorney, is determined to change that.

To Amenga-Etego, the biggest obstacle to wider water access is water privatization, especially large-scale privatization schemes backed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He recently mobilized labor unions, rural residents, and many other Ghanaians to oppose a World Bank and IMF push for water privatization in Ghana. In early 2003, in the face of public pressure, the government agreed to suspend the project. Now, as the director of the Globalization Response Program for a Ghanian nonprofit organization called the Integrated Social Development Center, Amenga-Etego is campaigning to make safe drinking water available to everyone in the country by 2010.

Amenga-Etego’s work carries serious risks. As a student activist in Ghana in the politically chaotic 1980s, he was jailed many times, and spent seven months living in hiding. Ghana now has a more stable and democratic government, and Amenga-Etego is able to work in relative safety, but he says he is still watched by members of the national intelligence bureau.

Amenga-Etego was awarded one of six 2004 Goldman Environmental Prizes in a ceremony in San Francisco, Calif., on April 19. He says he will spend some of the prize money on a reservoir for his own community, and will use the rest of it to network and coordinate activists throughout Ghana. He spoke to Grist from San Francisco.

Please describe how the lack of clean drinking water impacts Ghanaians.

It’s what they need for the care of their household. The lack of it affects the care of patients who have HIV and tuberculosis, it affects the care of babies, and it makes it more difficult to take care of sanitation in the home. The lack of clean water causes typhoid and cholera — 70 percent of the disease in the country is waterborne. Women have to walk long distances to find water, and girls — who are mostly responsible for getting water — certainly lose time in terms of school hours, so it affects the overall educational standards of women.

How have these problems been affected by the actions of the IMF and World Bank?

They have played a major role. Before they got involved, we had a system where industries and elites in cities paid a little more to subsidize the water consumption of rural folks, the lower-income segment of society. The World Bank and IMF have introduced what they call a demand-driven policy, where water will only go to households that pay for it. Privatization of water systems was a condition for giving Ghana a grant to rehabilitate and expand its water systems, and privatization brought about huge price hikes and created another barrier to access.

What led you to focus your energies on this problem?

Fetching water from a well in Accra, Ghana.

Photo: Will Parrinello.

First of all, I live in a community that is poor, so I see firsthand how people struggle in their daily lives just to access water. This pricks my conscience. As an attorney, I’ve had occasions where neighbors came to consult me — they had been unable to pay for their water, so they had reconnected their system illegally and been written to by the company. They were living with the whole cycle of no money, no service, and the threat of prosecution and psychological trauma. If you live with these people, you can only be moved to want to assist. That led me to get to the cause of the problem, and I found it was water privatization, so I decided that was one of the things we had to fight.

What’s been your most successful strategy?

I think the most successful thing was getting the labor movement to act in conjunction with poor communities, issuing statements of protest and making it very clear through demonstrations that they can no longer accept privatization as part of their lives. About once every two months, there is a march somewhere or a major rally where the community meets and expresses anger and frustration about privatization and World Bank and IMF interference.

That got a response from the government. Every government wants to be voted into power, and they knew that privatization would make them unpopular. Multinational companies saw that everyone was saying no, and they knew that it would be uncomfortable working in the country. The key was international solidarity — we collaborated with groups in the U.S. and the U.K., where the multinationals come from, and those groups were protesting at company headquarters and against the IMF.

How do you think drinking water should be managed and distributed?

Because water is so essential — it’s life itself — water ought to be in public hands. Communities should be able to hold officials accountable for pollution or other problems — if you leave it in private hands, the companies are accountable only to shareholders. It should be publicly managed, but with the involvement of communities. The community involvement checks corruption, assures accountability, and assures democratic action if the officers don’t perform.

Because the World Bank backed out of privatization, the majority of water in the country is still public. There is a community in Ghana called Savelugu where the community came into partnership with [the Ghana public] water company — it’s what we call a public-public partnership. The community does all the collection [of fees] and the distribution, and it does all the pricing. The company is responsible for checking the water quality. There’s been 100 percent collection for the last three years, so we use that as an example.

Etego speaks to Ghanaians about sutainable water management.

Photo: Will Parrinello.

Do you think there are any cases where privatization could improve access to water?

If the price of water is left to the market to determine, there will always be a demand for water, so the price will continue to be pushed up. So if water is a human right, then we cannot allow the price to be determined by market. I cannot see it as an efficient allocator of water.

What do you say to other countries and cities dealing with their own water-privatization proposals?

I always tell them, first and foremost: The community has to have ownership. The community must, through its elected representatives, have a say in how the water is managed, and by whom. The other thing is that the community must be responsible enough to help the water supplier, which is hopefully a public supplier — the community must show civic responsibility by reporting leaks in pipelines, places where water is wasted. Last but not least, there should be the ability to provide water at very low prices or free to members of the community who cannot pay. If there is a home for the aged, or for people with HIV, we should share the burden to ensure that such groups are taken care of. That’s a matter of our duty to other human beings.

I understand you have been jailed and forced underground because of your political work. Where have you found the inspiration to continue?

In my country, when you go out there, you see poor women with babies on their backs, walking along and looking for safe water. You need to have a really, really, really hard heart not to sympathize. There’s so much deprivation. The water marches that we do in Accra — you can’t see all those people marching in the streets and abandon them.

What is the most pressing issue your group is facing now?

The World Bank has insisted that it should put in place a management service contract for five years. We think the management service contract is meant to cool down tempers, to make it look like they are no longer doing privatization. But the management service contract is a form of privatization, because they’re going to give the management to multinational corporations. This is an election year, so we are going around to various electoral areas and asking people not to vote for those who support the privatization of water.

How can activists in the United States help your cause?

The first thing is that because we’re dealing with the IMF and the World Bank, people need to confront these institutions and demand that loans for essential services should be condition-free. The other thing they can do is share their research on issues that will aid our campaign. For instance, if there’s a new technology that will supply water simply and cost-effectively, that would help us make our argument, help us convince the government.

What does this award mean to you?

When you are working in a poor, obscure country, you don’t know that anyone’s listening or watching. It’s an honor for me and my colleagues — we’re happy to know that someone has recognized our work. The resources will help us in expanding our networks — we hope to increase our capacity and our ability to confront the World Bank and the IMF.

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