Monrovia — In July 1990, as then-rebel leader Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia advanced on Monrovia, Taylor's guerrilla fighters attacked the White Plains water treatment plant outside Monrovia, leaving the population of the capital without piped water. It was a powerful signal of intent. White Plains was caught up in several battles for control during the course of Liberia's 14-year civil war.
Even now, nine years after the guns fell silent, Monrovia's water system is painfully inadequate. Just as a struggling electricity supply leaves households dependent on oil-powered generators, getting regular water means constant improvisation, buying and borrowing.
But it was not always like this. Hun-Bu Tulay, who headed the Liberia Water and Sewage Corporation after the war, recalls a time when ordinary citizens could drink confidently from the tap.
"When I came to Monrovia in the 1960s, the population was only around 150,000, while the treatment plant had a capacity of eight million gallons, which was more than enough for the city. You could open a tap in any three-storey building and get water. There was a 24-hour supply and an adequate sewage treatment facility."
Tulay points out that geographic and geological factors hardly work in Monrovia's favour when it comes to water. Part of the city is built on hard rock, part on mangrove swamps - neither conducive to building wells - while the surrounding Mesurado River is notoriously polluted.
But it was the years of political instability and conflict from the end of 1989 to 2003 that devastated the water system.
According to a Poverty Reduction Strategy issued in 2008, 37 percent of the population had access to safe drinking water in 1990; the figure had dropped to 17 percent by 2003. The decline in basic sanitation facilities was even more dramatic. In the interior, under-funded country administrations and supporting NGOs confronted a post-war legacy of broken pumps, exhausted water points, serious staff shortages and a dangerous dependence on creeks and other unreliable sources for drinking water. In Monrovia, there had been a huge population increase, but a contraction rather than expansion of services.
Liberia's water problems have been the subject of endless reports, reviews and surveys going back over two decades. But water is now on the agenda as never before, at least in terms of rhetoric from the top and policy commitments.
In 2009, the Liberian government approved a National Water and Sanitation Policy. Also that year, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was named Goodwill Ambassador for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Africa by WaterAid and the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation with support from the African Ministers' Council on Water and Sanitation. Liberia has signed up to the eThekwini declaration, guaranteeing that 0.5 per cent of GDP will be spent on water and hygiene.
Liberia was also strongly represented at the Safe Water for All meeting in Washington in April, hosted a joint meeting with Sierra Leone on water policy and agreed on a WASH Compact, signed by Johnson Sirleaf in January 2012.
The WASH Compact promises substantial changes over a two-year period. Proposals include: reinforced budget lines for water, sanitation and hygiene; a detailed investment plan; a National Water Resources and Sanitation Board to direct policy and a National Water Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion Committee, presided over by the Ministry of Public Works, drawing on the expertise of NGOs, civil servants and donors.
The more centralized approach is meant to avoid the fragmentation of the past when at least four ministries were involved in water policy. At the grassroots level, Liberia is now pushing for the kind of Community-Led Total Sanitation practised in some other parts of Africa and Asia. There are strong commitments on rehabilitating damaged water and sanitation facilities and building new ones, improving water testing and controlling theft. Public health campaigns, particularly through schools, prioritising sanitation and good hygiene practices, are seen as increasingly crucial in changing behaviour.
Prince Kreplah, who chairs the Civil Society WASH Network, a joint advocacy group for about 10 NGOs, says a lot has already been achieved.
He says the pressure for improvement has come from the grassroots, ordinary citizens voicing their concerns and frustrations, not simply from the experts and policymakers. He says that some key ministries have still not got the message and good intentions will count for nothing if the right funding is not made available.
Apollos Nwafor, team leader for the international NGO WaterAid in Liberia and Sierra Leone, applauds the Liberian government's sense of purpose, but warns that financial allocations must be realistic if the problems are to be addressed.
"It's not a fix-me solution, it's hydra-headed," Nwafor said. He points out that a sector plan for water and sanitation called for $375 million to be invested over a five-year period - $75 million a year, a huge chunk of the government's budget.
Donors, particularly the African Development Bank, have provided significant funding in the past, but windows will be closing as other priorities emerge. Nwafor warns that there is still too much of a "hand-out mentality" in Liberia, that planning suffers from a lack of proper decentralisation and too many bureaucratic blockages, while there are disastrous short-falls in maintenance, with pumps and other materials contributed often falling by the wayside.
George Yarngo, head of community affairs at the Ministry of Public Works, says the goodwill and optimism generated by Liberia's high profile stance on sanitation could turn challenges into opportunities.
"The issue of sustainability is crucial," Yarngo argues, stressing that the time for short-term interventions is over and urging NGOs to have clearly thought-out exit strategies. But Yarngo says it is also down to communities to take over their systems. "It becomes quite burdensome when the government has to go around trying do every little thing that would make a water system work," he concedes. "The issue of sanitation is best addressed by those who it affects most."
Yarngo says private house builders should factor in sanitary arrangements, pointing out that: "a latrine will cost one 20th of the price of a house", but warning also that some communities are so crowded that houses might have to be destroyed to build latrines.
Kreplah and Yarngo both agree that personal responsibility must come into the equation if sanitation is going to improve. Yarngo talks ruefully of latrines built on Carey Street in the city centre that have now been transformed into living quarters. Kreplah quotes World Bank statistics on the hours lost by people searching for defecation sites, the prevalence of water-borne diseases, killing close to 3,000 Liberians every year, and the consequences for children not having proper latrines in schools.
But he says there are everyday practices that must simply stop. "People defecate every night into plastic bags and throw it over into the next person's house. When it rains, they will be using rainwater from the roof that has been in contact with feces."
Kreplah says Liberians are still slow to accept the value and importance of latrines. "People have flamboyant phones here, fabulous phones. Just one of those phones could build two latrines. But almost all our homes don't have a latrine."