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African Water Crises*

U.N. hears of African water crisis

By MATT CRENSON, Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (June 6, 9:05 p.m. CDT) - Millions of poor African families desperately need clean water, hiking miles to fetch it or buying exorbitantly priced bottled water, even as wealthy Africans wash their cars and water their lawns. Many slum dwellers steal water from pipelines.

What Africa needs to solve the problem is privatized water companies that would make people pay for what they use, even if it means putting water meters in every household, an expert panel said at the United Nations on Wednesday.

Most African cities provide running water to only a portion of their residents. Other citizens, mostly those living in shantytowns on the outskirts of town, make enormous sacrifices to get their daily drinking water supply. Or they go without.

In Accra, Ghana, the water company delivers about half of the water the city needs. Rich people use drinking water to water lawns and wash cars, said Kwamena Bartels, Ghana's Minister for Public Works and Housing. Meanwhile, slum dwellers buy expensive bottled water from people who illegally siphon it out of the city's pipes. The practice is common throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

"It is unbelievable but true that an inhabitant of Kibera slum in Nairobi, earning less than a dollar a day, pays as much as five times the price paid by an average U.S. citizen for a liter of water," said Anna Tibaijuka, director of the U.N. Center for Human Settlements.

That wouldn't be the case if everybody had to pay a fair price for what they used, water managers from several African nations told the U.N. Conference on Human Settlements. The three-day conference opened Wednesday.

Accra has invited private investors to lease and operate the city's water distribution system for profit, Bartels said. There are currently five contenders for two contracts. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, will soon adopt a similar approach.

The hope is that a profit motive will drive those investors to make the water distribution system more efficient and affordable.

Water currently costs 27 cents a cubic meter in Accra. Today, a private investor would have to charge 63 cents to turn a profit. The World Bank has agreed to pay the difference for the next five years, but by then the private company is expected to have brought the cost down through increased efficiency

There is plenty of room for improvement. Half of Accra's water simply disappears between the treatment plant and the customers, lost to leaks and theft. Only 10 percent of Dar es Salaam's customers even have water meters.

"There is a lot of stealing," said Victor Kanu, a senior education specialist from Zambia. "A lot of pilfery. There is a lot of tampering with meters."

The inequitable distribution of water has unexpected and long-lasting effects on African society, Tibaijuka said.

For example, girls who traditionally fetch water cannot attend school during the hours they spend each day toting heavy containers. With no chance to get an education, these girls will have little chance of escaping poverty.

"If girls can be relieved of this burden, a lot of difference can be made

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