3 September 2004

Gabon: Health-Gabon: Water Shortage Hits the Capital

Libreville — The residents of Libreville's working-class neighbourhoods, unable to get hook-ups to the city's water system, are taking matters into their own hands by hooking themselves up to the metres of existing customers.

Officially, the responsibility to connect customers to the city's water system lies with the Gabon Electric and Water Company (SEEG) which is struggling to provide services to Libreville, the capital, as well as to the rest of the central African country's 1.2 million people.

"Because of the distance to connection points and difficulty in getting potable water, residents in Libreville's Nkol Ogoum neighbourhood started letting SEEG officials know in July of their displeasure. They complained that even in 2004, potable water was not a reality for them," one resident told IPS.

Nkol Ogoum's 5,000 residents have chosen to pirate or buy water from those hooked up to SEEG lines. This has forced the price of water to go up, contributing to its limited availability.

In Gabon, a family is limited to 15 cubic metres of water a month. While low-income consumers get a special rate of about 24 cents a cubic metre. Since SEED's privatisation in 1997, the cost of water has dropped from 91 cents to 40 cents per cubic metre.

In the parallel market, a cubic metre of water costs about 10 dollars a month to single people, and between 20 and 30 dollars to families, depending on their size.

To combat the growing piracy, the SEEG sent representatives out into the streets Aug. 11 to explain to customers the technical problems related to providing water to the 121-metre-high working-class neighbourhood.

The SEEG estimates that 50,000 cubic metres of water, or nearly 20,000 dollars, a month, at Nkol Oguom, are lost to piracy.

To fix the problem, the SEEG decided, in the end, to build a water tower to service the suburb and improve distribution to neighbouring areas.

"For the time being, there is a lack of pressure because of the length of the pipes used to deliver the water. But the main issue is that they are suspended on existing poles intended for other uses," said an SEEG technician, who was in the area to study the altitude problem.

SEEG project director, Rodrigue Ndjimbi Kombila, told IPS "the site has already been chosen and the project will consist of building a 1000-cubic-metre reservoir with a compressor (to increase the flow of water). Customers will be able to pump as much as 140 cubic metres per hour".

"The SEEG will invest 550 million CFA (about 943,396 dollars) in the project," he noted.

"People feel relieved because their two or three kilometres trek to fill buckets at a public hydrant or buy from resellers may soon be over," said Nicaise Moulombi, of Growth, Health and Environment, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which defends consumer rights.

Water, an essential resource for humans as well as the environment, is unevenly distributed in Gabon and fixing the problem has been a major challenge for the authorities, according to the ministry of water affairs.

"Gabon, whose water resources are estimated at 164 cubic kilometres, has some of the most important natural water resources per capita (in the sub-region). There is considerable potential in water, and harnessing it could be an important development advantage," Yvette Ngwevilo Rekangalt, of the country's Economic and Social Council, told IPS.

"But access to clean water is very limited in areas poorly integrated into the network, given their isolation and the absence of infrastructures. Purchasing potable water is common in urban areas, where 36 percent of the poor households buy it from a reseller," she explained.

As a result of shortage, the majority of residents of Libreville, whose 600,000 population has grown as a result of rural migration, have been forced to live far from water access points.

"In some neighbourhoods, the lack of hygiene means that some practices and uses may contaminate water," emphasised Dr. Pascal Obiant of the World Health Organisation's office in Libreville.

In town, access to potable water has not kept pace with urban growth. Thirty-two percent of city dwellers still don't have access, according to official statistics.

Out of Gabon's urban population of 788,000, only 59,200, are connected to the city's water lines. Potable water use in Libreville is 11 million cubic metres per month, according to figures provided by the SEEG.

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