Water everywhere in Angola, but few places to drink

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From the centre of Luanda it takes two hours by car to reach the remote bairro of Pedreira, on the northern peripheries of Angola's capital. Heavy traffic and giant potholes make it hard going and the closer we get, the worse the road becomes, eventually deteriorating into little more than a muddy pass.

Finally, up a steep incline at the top of a hill is Pedreira, a musseque (settlement-cum-township), home to about 15 000 people, most of whom fled here during the final years of Angola's long and bloody conflict.

Self-built houses made from concrete slabs and sheets of metal cling to slopes and hand-painted signs, some in Chinese, advertise the sale of building materials.

We've come to see a community water tap, or chafariz as they are known in Portuguese, which was fitted last year as part of the government's flagship five-year, $650-million Agua Para Todos (Water for All) scheme.

But on the day we arrive in Pedreira, which, although 20km from the centre of the capital, is still classed as Luanda, no water has come from the new communal taps for 14 days. Domingas Vunge, a 40-year-old local who is a mother of six, sighed.

"It's been two weeks since a drop of water came out of our tap" she said. "It's no good having a tap if we don't have the water. And even when it works, it is not enough and we have many queues and confusion here." Joao Sebastiao Calombe, a member of the local residents' association, said there was a problem with the pressure and getting the water up the hill.

Four out of ten taps working

"In fact, out of the 10 taps we have in the wider area here, only four are working. It makes big problems for people as they have to travel very far to get their water, sometimes up to 9km or 10km," Calombe said. He said the situation had been worsened by recent heavy rainfall that had made the road almost impassable at times.

"You see this mud?" he asked us. "It makes it very hard for cars to get through, let alone moto-taxis which is what most people here rely on to carry water containers from elsewhere when our taps stop." With 1 600km of Atlantic coastline and its interior criss-crossed by the Zambezi, Congo and Okavango rivers, Angola is one of Africa's most water-endowed countries.

It enjoys the most rainfall in Southern Africa and has twice as much available water per capita as Zambia or Mozambique and an estimated 10 times more than South Africa, according to the United Nations. Glossy government investment brochures boast of the country's vast hydro-electric potential and water-bottling is fast becoming a major industry. Yet, according to government's own figures (listed in the 2010 IBEP -- Population and Well-Being Survey) only 42% of Angola's 17-million citizens have access to clean water and just less than 60% to appropriate sanitation.

In some parts of Luanda as many as 10 000 people can share one chafariz. Supply problems and faulty machinery, like that in Pedreira, can mean taps stop working for days or even weeks at a time. Large amounts of poorly planned, post-war construction work carried out by rival companies can lead to new pipes being laid one day and cut the next, followed by a protracted disagreement over who is responsible and who will carry out repairs.

The only alternative for city dwellers, when the taps don't function and the nearest river is too far, is to buy water from private lorries which fill up at rivers and then charge between 50 kwanzas and 80 kwanzas (about US50c to 80c) for 25 litres, more than 10 times the chafariz rate of five kwanzas. This becomes a crippling burden for families already living on the breadline in a country where, depending on whose statistics you believe, between one and two-thirds live on less than $2 a day.

Meanwhile, those who can afford to live in the centre of Luanda, either in a new building or one of the few where the plumbing is still intact, enjoy piped water which costs only 32 kwanzas per 1 000 litres. The lack of clean water for those living in the country's poorest neighbourhoods, coupled with the still-common practice of open-air defecation, means there is a high risk of diseases like cholera and typhoid, especially during the rainy season.

Poor sanitation

Bad -- or in the case of Pedreira nonexistent -- drainage systems often lead to puddles of stagnant water that turn green in the heat, giving off a horrid stench and making perfect breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Nationwide, diarrhoea claims the lives of more than 20 000 children a year, the third-biggest killer after malaria and acute respiratory infection.

Experts say Angola's lack of clean water and poor sanitation is the main reason it has among the highest under-five mortality rate in the world and is a major driver for the recent resurgence of polio that is now spreading into Congo. Statistics like these sit very uncomfortably with analysis earlier this year by the Economist magazine that noted that oil-rich Angola was the world's fastest-growing economy in the past decade, at 11.1%, sitting comfortably above China's 10,5% growth.

The poverty and mud of Pedreira is certainly a different world from the steel and glass skyscrapers springing up in the centre of Luanda, housing armies of well-dressed smartphone-carrying office workers. But, as in many other resource-rich African countries, Angola's huge oil income has not translated into material gains for its people.

In the United Nations Human Development Index the country was ranked 146 of the 169 countries surveyed; by comparison, South Africa sat at 110 and Botswana at 98.

The legacy of 27 years of conflict which ravaged the country from 1975 when it won independence from Portugal, until 2002, when Unita's Jonas Savimbi was killed, looms large: from overcrowded Luanda, where professionals earning $4 000 a month are forced to live in slums due to the lack of decent housing, to underdeveloped roads and infrastructure and the lack of basic healthcare and education in rural communities.

With nearly all the available money poured into fighting the war (although anticorruption group =ADGlobal Witness noted in two separate reports that a large amount was also quietly directed into selected offshore bank accounts) there was little or no investment in water or sanitation infrastructure for decades. The few facilities provided by the colonial Portuguese administration in the 1950s and 1960s, if not destroyed by landmines, are now either on their last legs or totally defunct.

In 2003, the government created a water sector development strategy, which outlined how it would tackle supply and distribution problems. Some early attempts were made to rehabilitate supply lines, but the lack of know-how and management led to little progress.

In 2007, the government launched the recent Water for All programme, which is responsible for building and rehabilitating water supply systems and community access taps, like the one in Pedreira, across the country. And while there are problems, the scheme, run in partnership with the United Nations Children's Fund and other external groups, is starting to make a difference.

Social mobilisation

Boreholes are being drilled, new taps installed or existing ones repaired and localised water treatment facilities are being set up in rural areas next to rivers. Thanks to extensive social mobilisation about the importance of hand washing and water treatment, the number of cholera cases has declined and the government says it is confident it will meet the 2015 millennium development goal for environmental sustainability and halve the number of people who don't currently have sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Antero Almeida de Pina, the former head of Unicef Angola's Wash (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme), agreed that the cholera rate had dropped significantly.

"In 2006 there were 67 000 cases of cholera here, with 20 000 cases in Luanda alone. Now, the number has gone down to about 2 000 a year, with fewer than 20 cases in Luanda so far in 2011. This shows the progress that is being made." With the government keen to promote its successes, perhaps with good reason based on these statistics, good-news stories about the scheme make the headlines of state-run television, radio and newspapers almost daily.

Expensive government commercials show smiling communities queuing happily for water and the secretary of state for water, Luis Felipe da Silva, seems to spend his working week crossing the country to switch on taps and cut the sod for new boreholes. But behind this positive façade the reality of the scheme is slightly different.

According to one expatriate community worker, the government is sometimes a little free and loose with its statistics and it considers a community to have water if it has a water source, regardless of whether that source is working. In the government's view Pedreira is technically a success, even though since its taps were installed and switched on in February last year, they have been dogged by maintenance and pressure problems.

It's hard to know how many other communities are facing a similar situation because of the way the records are kept. For many, though, a step in the right direction remains a step in the right direction.

Displaying the typical Angolan trait of practical optimism, shaped by years of conflict and a fear of criticising the all-powerful government, Pedreira resident Vitoria Cassumba said she is just pleased to have a chafariz, even if it doesn't work all the time. "Before we had to travel very far," the 43-year-old said. "But now it is just 150m from my home and this is a great improvement."

When I pointed out it was not working, she shrugged: "It will work soon, I am sure." The co-ordinator of Pedreira's residents' association, Franciso Manuel Guedes, said: "I want to thank the government because it has =ADprovided us with this tap. It's not its fault the water pressure isn't always strong enough for the water to reach us here."

Positive improvements

Local residents' association member Calombe can also see the positives. "We used to have a lot of cholera here because of the lack of clean water," he said.

"But since the taps came, we have seen the levels of cholera reduce greatly, also because more people are using bleach products to treat their water before drinking it."

He said the nearest health clinic was 10km away, which sometimes took more than an hour to reach because of the bad roads and people were fast learning that it is better to avoid cholera than to have to go for treatment. Calombe and his colleagues have been working with Canadian NGO Development Workshop (DW) to manage their water supply.

DW has done extensive work on improving water access in Angola's capital under the umbrella of the Luanda Urban Poverty Programme, a UK department for international development-funded partnership between DW, CARE International, Save the Children UK and One World Action. In response to needs they have identified they have helped set up a number of water committees like the one in Pedreira. One of the most successful is based in the sprawling musseque of Ngola Kiluange in the Sambizanga municipality, half way between central Luanda and Pedreira.

It was created nine years ago to oversee the management and distribution of water from a 250 000-litre reservoir which is supplied by the city's water company, Epal (Empresa Pública de Aguas de Luanda), and is pumped out to chafarizes in the area. From inside a walled compound, committee member Jose Candido proudly opens up the lid of this precious resource and explains how they oversee supply to a number of taps in the bairro, selling each 25-litre bucket or container at a price of 5 kwanzas (about US5c).

The taps are switched on for a set period each day, he said, to avoid wastage and they are able to monitor the reservoir levels and manage supplies until the next Epal delivery. Several hundred metres down the road a noisy queue was thronging beside the taps supplied by Candido's reservoir where a man stood taking money and a woman beside him controlled the taps.

The fees each resident pays for his or her water are taken into a central pot with a portion going to Epal for the cost of the water (about 30%) and the rest kept by the committee. The funds are spent on wages for the tap monitors (crucial to ensure orderly queues) and to pay for any maintenance or extra fittings, like external metal cages to prevent vandalism. A share of the cash is also spent on community education to promote hand-washing, water treatment and better sanitation techniques.

Adao Adriano, a DW coordinator, said: "This type of community-based management is helping to ensure people are getting water at a fair price and that supplies are maintained." Organised water committees, he said, were less likely to put up with supply problems from Epal and were in a better position to assert their rights as consumers. But when there are problems, the community members are still the ones who pay.

"When we don't have water it means the private lorries come," Candido said, "and the people have no choice but to buy from them, which leaves the poorest even poorer because this water is so expensive." Some cynics say that the private companies who operate the lorries are in cahoots with Epal, which deliberately slows supplies to allow the companies to profit from the dry taps.

This aside, people like Unicef's Almedia de Pina believe there have been many positive developments in Angola's water sector, although he acknowledges there is still a way to go. "The country does have the resources to resolve its water problems but, you know, this takes a lot of planning and human resources and that is something that remains very limited after so many years of war. "It will get there, but it's going to take a long time." The residents of Pedreira and Ngola Kiluange have no choice but to wait and hope that positive and lasting change does indeed come.