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Ghana has a long history of struggle against the inequitable allocation of water - beginning with protests against colonial water policy and, more recently, with opposition to water privatisation that began in the 1990s. Alhassan Adam writes about the history, the challenge to privatisation and the road ahead.

Access to water in Ghana has always been one of the most contested issues in the history of the country and this was so even before the country gained independence from Britain. In the 1930s, the introduction of water rates in Accra by the British colonial administration sparked a wave of protest by the citizens. The water protest was a key unifying factor across different classes and social strata. It brought together youth groups, lawyers, chiefs, ratepayers and landlords.

After independence, the nationalist government led by Kwame Nkrumah made efforts to expand the provision of water services beyond the major cities. Subsequent governments continued this approach until the 1990s when Ghana begun to introduce major reforms in the water sector. The reforms in the 1990s were part of an economic recovery programme, seen as a vehicle for resurrecting the ailing Ghanaian economy.

This major shift in the management and governance of water in Ghana delivered a number of things: the introduction of full cost recovery; the unbundling Ghana Water and Sewerage Corporation (GWS) into Ghana Water Company and the incorporation of numerous water boards for rural water supply. The reform further introduced private sector participation in water management, however, attempts to introduce private ownership of water were resisted by civil society.

In June 2006, the Ghanaian government, represented by Ghana Water Company Limited, finally signed a management contract with Aqua Vitens Rand Limited after almost six years of stalemate due to a vigorous campaign mounted by the National Coalition Against Privatisation of Water (NCAP).

The performance of Aqua Vitens Rand Limited has been abysmal. As part of restructuring, about 1,600 workers were retrenched, water tariffs were increased and the organogram of Ghana Water Company Limited has been radically changed, leading to industry actions. The labour union is calling for the abrogation of the management contract, and has also accused Aqua Vitens Rand Limited of victimising unionists.

Come December 2011, the management contract will expire. While consumers, social movements and labour unions are calling for an end to the relationship with Aqua Vitens Rand Limited, the World Bank, on the other hand, is making frantic efforts to get the contract extended.


Ghana is said to have abundant water resources. It is drained by three main river basin systems: the Volta, South Western and Coastal, which cover, in that order, 70 per cent, 22 per cent and eight per cent of the total area of the country (Sarpong 2005). Ghana has a total annual runoff of about 54.4 billion cubic meters and consumptive water demand for 2020 is projected to be about 5.13 billion cubic meters, about 13 per cent of the surface water resources (Ampomah 2010). As a result, Ghana is one of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa which is least water stressed. That said, resources are unevenly distributed across the ecological zones in the country; the guinea and coastal savannah ecological zones experience water stress during the harmattan season, the driest months.

The utilisation of water in Ghana can be broadly classified as follows: domestic water supply, navigation (transportation), hydro-electricity, fishing, irrigation, and industrial (i.e. mining, canning, textile, brewery, building and construction, pharmaceuticals and tanning).

In the pre-colonial era, water was governed as a ‘common’ base on the norms and practices of individual communities. There were no unified laws or codes for the use of water; each community prescribed the way and manner they used their water resources. According to Sarpong (2005:3) water governance was then governed by what is known in legal terminology as customary law. He argues that this practice was useful for the protection of water resources especially in areas where water is scarce: ‘Water in all its forms including the sea, rivers and lakes is regarded as public property not subject to individual appropriation. The rule is said to be strict, especially in areas where there is scarcity of water.’ The enforcers of these customary norms and practice were the fetish priest and priestesses, who even dictated the kind of tools and equipment that could be used for water abstraction (Sarpong 2005; Hauck and Youkhana 2008).

With the arrival of the colonialists, customary law co-existed side by side with statute laws, but the former had greater influence. Ghana’s current constitution also recognises customary law, but it still comes secondary to statute law. Under the 1992 constitution, ownership of water is vested in the hands of the president. This constitution has further alienated community and traditional control of water by the creation of the Water Resources Commission (WRC) which is the only institution that has the mandate and responsibility of issuing permits and rights for the use of water in the country.

The WRC Act, 1996 (Act 552) conferred on the Water Resources Commission the mandate to enact regulations on water use, while the Water Use Regulations, 2001 (L.I. 1692) provides procedures for allocating permits for various water users, including domestic, commercial, municipal, industrial, agricultural, power generation, water transportation, fisheries (aquaculture), environmental, recreational and under water (wood) harvesting (GOG 2007:57).

The creation of the WRC was part of the bigger scheme of liberalisation of the entire water sector. The water reforms were also a subset of the general economic reforms which Ghana has embarked on since 1983 through the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP).

Under the ensuing reforms, cost recovery measures were introduced for water rates, and user fees for community stand pipes. The Ghana Water and Sewerage Corporation (GWSC) was unbundled into the Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL) and hundreds of water boards across the country responsible for small town and rural water and sanitation. These reforms introduced new dimensions of water management and governance. Emphasis was placed on the participation of the private sector in water management and on quasi community ownership (Whitfield 2006; Hauck and Youkhana 2008).

Private sector participation in the water sector was to take the form of foreign direct investment and the introduction of efficient management practices in urban water supply, while in the rural water sector it focused on providing services such as supply of drilling equipment, borehole parts, engineering and managerial skills.

The Ghanaian government and the World Bank developed two lease contracts by dividing Ghana’s urban water supply systems into two business units. It was expected that the successful winner for the bid on each business unit would invest about $70-million dollars and have management rights for 25 years. Most multi-national water companies entered bids for the contract. However, this proposal was not successful due to the vigorous campaign launched by the Coalition Against Privatisation of Water (Fall et al. 2009).

The coalition continued to target multi-national water companies that put in their bids and as a result got private companies such as Suez and Biwater out. However, they were not successful in getting companies such as Rand Water and Vitens to pull out. In hindsight, it is clear that the Ghanaian government and the World Bank were desperate to get the project implemented.

Though the management contract has been in operation for the past four years, urban water supply in Ghana has seen little progress. Residential and industrial consumers are complaining of erratic water supplies and higher tariffs. In 2009 alone, water tariffs were increased by 66 per cent. Industrial relations between the unions and management is seriously deteriorating. In a recent petition signed by the general secretary of the Public Utility Workers Union, he alleged that Aqua Vitens Rand Limited had resorted to victimisation of unionists through transfers and other tactics.

In the rural water sector, they are grappling with the issues of repairs and maintenance; about 30 per cent of boreholes are not functioning. There is a hydrological problem with the drilling of boreholes and about 40 per cent of drillings do not yield water (CWSA 2010), which is affecting the rate of water supply. Also, some areas have high fluoride and iron content, which poses a health problem.

Water is still a burning issue in Ghana. It is evident that the water reforms have not solved the water situation in Ghana. Water still attracts a lot of debate on political platforms and radio discussions. It was not surprising that during the 2008 presidential elections, Voice of America did a report which suggested that water would play a significant role in the outcome of the election (Ghanaweb 2008). The incumbent government that had signed the management contract ended up losing the election.


The first recorded civil society mobilisation over water was in 1934, when the colonial government introduced an urban water supply system in Accra. The introduction of potable water to citizens was as a result of a recommendation by the World Health Organisation. In order for the colonial government to recover its cost it introduced water rates, a move that was challenged by civil society groups in Accra. They wrote a petition to the King of England calling for the repeal of the law and transfer of management of the water supply to Accra city council. The petitioners were made up of the following groups: the rate payers association, Accra Youth League, Manbie party, and Chiefs of Accra’ (Bohman 2010:72).

From the 1930s until the 1990s there was no major civil society mobilisation on water. The only forms of protest were limited to people breaking up pipelines to siphon water and scuffles between metre readers and residents. These forms of direct actions were not organized, but based on individual reactions to situations. The 1990s water reforms activated civil society engagement in water governance.

The reforms opened a window of opportunity for formalised civil society organisations (NGOs) to pick up some contracts from the state. One such organisation was ISODEC. In an interview with Bishop Akolgo (executive director, ISODEC), he said that ISODEC worked with the National Service Secretariat (a parastatal agency) to mobilise and train rural communities to develop and manage boreholes and basic sanitation facilities. This work also initiated the first pilot community water management scheme in the Brong Ahafo region, which was later scaled up to national level.

He said ISODEC and the National Service Secretariat’s community improvement unit initiated a national platform for the promotion of rural water and sanitation issues. The idea was welcomed by most of the NGOs and donors engaged in the sector. The first meeting of the platform was held at the Mole National Park and subsequent meetings of the platform adopted the name of the park and hence have become known as the Mole series. This platform has survived since its establishment in 1989 and it has become an institutionalised space for the assembly of rural water and sanitation NGOs, experts, donors and policy makers.

ISODEC’s role as one of the key NGOs in providing water services to rural communities gave them leverage to win more government contracts and insights into the water reform agenda. The United Kingdom Department for International Development (DfID) engaged ISODEC to undertake social mapping in Kumasi as part of the proposed urban water reforms. Results from this study alerted ISODEC to the dangers of the reforms, especially for the urban poor, as well as Ghana’s sovereign control over its water system. In 2001, ISODEC organised a national forum to discuss the urban water reforms. Presentations for the forum were drawn from both national and international water experts, activists and trade unions. At the end of the national forum, the Accra Declaration was issued which called for a campaign against the reforms.

The National Coalition Against Privatisation of Water (NCAP) is one of the few social movements on water in Africa (Bond 2007; Prempeh 2006). Since its inception, NCAP has focused on the mobilisation of workers, students and communities as their core activists (Whitfield 2006). This is a major departure from the usual type of advocacy carried out by NGOs, which has come to dominate the Ghanaian development landscape.

The campaign employed teach-ins and leafleting at workplaces and university campuses as well as occasional community public forums. Since 2001, NCAP has also mounted a vigorous media engagement with government and proponents of water privatisation. NCAP has also used direct actions such as picketing to draw attention of the general public to the privatisation issue (Public Agenda 2008 & 2009).

The campaign has been deemed as one of the most potent in the history of Ghanaian social movements. In an interview with Mawuli Dake, he said:

‘It is probably the first time that citizens were able to fully engage, interrupt and impact a World Bank/multi-national policy in Ghana…NCAP’s approach… has to do with its mobilisation at local, national and international levels…defeating some of the world’s [most"> powerful multi-national companies is no small accomplishment for a social movement.’

The profile of the campaign was so high on the Ghanaian political landscape that every opposition political party in Ghana was issuing solidarity support messages to the coalition (Ghanaweb, 2001a).

It is important to note that, within the milieu of the anti-water privatisation struggle, another network emerged from the Mole Series crowd called the Coalition of NGOs in Water and Sanitation (CONIWAS). In an interview with Patrick Apoya, executive secretary of CONIWAS and former Northern Sector Coordinator of NCAP, CONIWAS entered the advocacy scene in 2003 when the 12th Mole Series conference mooted the idea of forming a network on water and sanitation with a functional secretariat. CONIWAS was formed as a 25-member organisation; present membership is estimated to be close to 100 organisations.

CONIWAS, unlike NCAP, is predominantly a coalition of service delivery NGOs whose position on privatisation is not clear. The approach of CONIWAS to policy change is the use of dialogue with policy makers and donors. They have been instrumental in influencing 2007 Ghana Water Policy to include a human right to water, as well as abolishing five per cent counter part funding from communities for water infrastructure. It is also common to find within the ranks of CONIWAS some of the NCAP members.

In Ghana, civil society organisations are using different approaches to bring change in the water sector. These approaches range from a direct anti-privatisation stance to dialogue. Also there seems to be continuous horizontal and vertical dissemination of tactics and strategy by those joining or initiating new platforms.


In an interview with Akolgo, he mentioned that, when ISODEC decided to campaign against water privatisation, the Ghanaian government blocked their funding from UNDP and one of their international partners pulled out and even attempted to undermine ISODEC.

The trade unions and political parties which identified themselves with the coalition position were attacked by the then ruling government as ideologues and as against development and foreign investment. The tactics by the government were therefore to appeal to the Ghanaian middle class in order to isolate the coalition and its sympathisers.


Fifteen years of reforms and five years of the management contract have not yielded any remarkable result in the urban water sector; industrial and residential consumers complain daily about poor water services and higher tariffs. On the part of rural water provision, there has been an increase in infrastructure provision, but there has been less attention to repairs, maintenance and quality of water. As a result, rural people are provided with water that comes with health problems due to high fluoride and iron content.

This year is the end of the management contract and the mobilisation by NCAP has to be more vigorous in putting forward an alternative agenda. There does seem to be a wind of change blowing from the corridors of donors, starting from the European Union, who last year opened up a public-private partnership funding window. Though the funding will not meet the levels of investment needed to solve the backlog investments gaps, it is important that activists in Ghana capitalise on such initiatives and push their governments to give it a shot after the failure of the management contract.


* Alhassan Adam is coordinator of the African Water Network and a partner with Policy and Services Associates.
* This article is part of a special issue on water and water privatisation in Africa produced as a joint initiative of the Transnational Institute, Ritimo and Pambazuka News. This special issue is being published in English and in French.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


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Bohman, A. (2010) 'Framing the Water and Sanitation Challenge: A history of urban water supply and sanitation', Doctoral Dissertation in Economic History, Umea University'.
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Hauck, J and Youkhana, E. (2008) 'Histories of water and fisheries management in Northern Ghana', ZEF Working Paper Series 32, University of Bonn.
Prempeh, E. O. K. (2006) 'Against Global Capitalism: African social movements confront neoliberal globalization', ASHGATE: London.
Sarpong, G. A. (2005) 'Customary Water Laws And Practices: Ghana'.
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World Bank (2002) Decision Makers’ Workshop: Private Sector Participation in Water Supply and Sanitation Services in Sub-Saharan Africa Summary Proceedings and Outline for a Roadmap Volume 1, Dakar, Senegal, February 13-15, 2002.


Ministry Of Water Resources, Works And Housing (2010) 2007 National Water Policy,
Ghanaweb (2001a), Water Privatization: PNC Unhappy, 3 October 2001,
Ghanaweb (2001b), NPP lashes out at critics of water privatisation, 16 November 2001,


Bishop Akolgo, Executive Director, ISODEC
Patrick Apoya, Executive Secretary, CONIWAS
Mawuli Dake, Activist, NCAP