In Freetown, Sierra Leone, technician Dennis Koroma navigates the bustling streets filled with busy vendors and honking cars to map the city’s water pipes. He can walk along many of the pipes, as they are exposed and easy to see. The buried pipes are harder to locate, but he relies on his global positioning system-enabled tablet containing maps from 1979 — the last time the city’s water system was officially mapped — and local knowledge to guide him.
The Guma dam, which sits in a protected area overlooking the city, is Freetown’s single water supply source. However, the reservoir does not hold enough water to supply the rapidly growing population of Freetown. Reports indicate that the 176 miles of pipes that make up the Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC) transmission and distribution system were originally designed to serve half a million people, but Freetown’s population is closer to three times that. Interruptions in water service delivery are common.
“In Sierra Leone, people are so strained for water. Pipes are very important because they sustain our water,” Dennis told me.
As part of the $44.4 million Sierra Leone Threshold Program, MCC is supporting the Government of Sierra Leone’s efforts to more effectively deliver water and electricity services to its people and limit opportunities for corruption as the country continues its recovery from the Ebola epidemic. A key component of the water project is the mapping that Dennis and other technicians are performing to confirm the position of water mains and identify the extent of the piped supply areas, including informal connections. With this information, GVWC will create a digital map of the city’s water distribution system and have better information to assess the water system’s performance and more efficiently address service delivery problems.
Water and sanitation-borne diseases are a major concern for Freetown’s residents. In areas with poor sanitation, viruses easily spread from feces into the water supply, or, by touch, into food. Insufficient water pressure leads to poor water quality, which can make people sick. E. coli and other pathogens can enter the water supply system through breaks in the pipes, contributing to the spread of cholera and other illnesses. This is especially dangerous for children, elderly and other vulnerable groups. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, Sierra Leone has the world’s fourth-highest mortality rate for children under 5. The Government of Sierra Leone is working to change this, and on our journey, we came across health workers providing free polio vaccinations to children as part of a nationwide immunization campaign.
In Freetown, GVWC supplies water to around 60 percent of the population, with many people, including GVWC customers, relying on other suppliers for their needs. One key player is the packaged water industry which produces sachet and bottled water, but some of these suppliers are not licensed.
The GVWC, which is nearly completely owned by the Government of Sierra Leone, faces a number of challenges. It suffers from financial losses as well as technical losses due to poor management and poorly maintained pipes and other infrastructure. Tariffs are highly subsidized, with residential customers paying a flat fee. As Dennis and I make our way through Freetown’s neighborhoods, a constant sight is the proliferation of blue rubber spaghetti pipes, the informal connections extending from main lines to individual homes, which mean major revenue losses for GVWC. More revenue needs to be collected to fund the utility’s current operations and to focus on investing in the much-needed improvement and expansion of the water network. Mapping will help GVWC gather improved information of the assets under its management to assess conditions, improve planning and make better decisions on investments in the system.
MCC’s investments in Sierra Leone’s water sector are working to reach vulnerable groups such as women, including through stakeholder engagement for planning, designing and implementing effective and safe water service delivery at public water standpipes. The people of Freetown will also benefit from education campaigns focused on reducing informal connections and promoting payment of water bills to strengthen GVWC’s financial footing.
The Sierra Leone Threshold Program is providing technical assistance to the Government of Sierra Leone as it works to establish an independent regulator, improve tariff setting processes and transparency, and build capacity for managing the water system to help ensure sustainability of the system. A public-private partnership pilot for the operation and management of public water standpipes will also provide the Government of Sierra Leone with new financing models to sustain threshold program improvements.
As we made our way through the last of the narrow passages between homes on Dennis’s route, I thought about the many people like Dennis who are contributing their skills, knowledge and drive to improve water quality and access for the people of Freetown. As Dennis told me, “This work makes me feel good and gives me new ideas about our country’s water system.”