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CHALLENGES 2006-2007: Angola’s Oil Not Flowing for Safer Water

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

NAIROBI, Dec 22 2006 (IPS) - The cholera epidemic which has been plaguing Angola for nearly a year has placed the spotlight on the continuing lack of safe drinking water in that country.

Over the past 11 months, the illness has spread to 16 of the 18 provinces and claimed the lives of more than 2,440 people, according to official estimates. But health workers in the country say the figure is probably much higher as many cases are not reported.

Cholera is an illness caused by contaminated water and characterised by severe diarrhoea and vomiting. It is easily treatable if there is health care infrastructure, an efficient transport system which ensures speedy travel to health care centres, and if safe drinking water is accessible.

But as these prerequisites are lacking in Angola, many there are dying.

This seems strange in a country with the fastest growing economy in Africa and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that the economy will expand by a staggering 31.4 percent in 2007. The reason: rising oil production.

Angola is the largest supplier of crude oil to China and the seventh largest supplier to the U.S.

Many of the poor still do not have access to clean drinking water or sanitation. A recent United Nations Development Programme report states that Angola’s infrastructure presently only covers 31 percent of sewage produced. Only about half of the population, 54 percent, have access to safe water.

U.N. Millennium Development Goal seven includes halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015. This seems out of reach for Angola, regardless of the billions of dollars pouring into the country.

About 1.4 million barrels of oil are produced daily, a figure which is expected to rise to two million in 2007. But the poor in rural areas see little of the money generated.

Back in the capital, Luanda, President José Eduardo dos Santos and a core group of allies live in luxury. Their lifestyles are allegedly supported by money siphoned off from the oil industry.

In 2002, the IMF ascertained that around 1.4 billion dollars of oil revenue in Angola was unaccounted for. In 2004, Human Rights Watch said 4.2 billion dollars of oil revenue had disappeared over a period of five years.

Fingers were pointed at those in government. Global Witness, a non-governmental organisation that investigates the corrupt use of natural resources, called this wholesale state theft.

Anti-graft watchdog Transparency International ranked Angola 142 of the 163 states surveyed for its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index (163 being the worst ranking, for the country where graft was seen as most pervasive).

“Angola is a post-crisis country which not only has to overcome political turmoil, but also has to supply and invest in basic services,” says Nairobi-based Matthias Johannsson, communication officer for the U.N. Millennium Project, an independent advisory body commissioned by the U.N. to develop an action plan against poverty.

“What is happening in Angola is the same as what is happening in countries like Kenya and Nigeria where there is steady economic growth. Raw materials are being shipped out of the country but the population sees few positive results.”

According to Peter Kagwanja, director of the democracy and governance programme at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, the rural-urban divide in Angola is sharper than ever.

This is mirrored by the sanitation divide in the country which translates into a lack of sewerage and safe drinking water in the rural areas, which in turn led to the cholera outbreak.

“Luanda, where Dos Santos and other high ranking government and private sector officials are based, is booming. But very little development is taking place in the rest of the country,” says Kagwanja.

“After many years of war, Angolan civil society is weak. There is little pressure on the Angolan government to develop the country outside of the capital. As elsewhere on the continent, the lack of clean water and toilets is taking a toll on human security. These conditions can be deadlier than the endemic conflicts on the continent.”

The presence of China as the primary investor in Angola does not change anything. “The Chinese are not concerned with issues of transparency and accountability,” Kagwanja points out. According to him, the Chinese stick to a position of mutual non-interference in their dealings with other states.

Similarly, the U.S. and France – which also has strong oil interests in Angola – seem reluctant to pressurise the Luanda government.

According to Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, a South African political analyst, “they do not rock the boat because they know that one does not stand a chance of doing business in Angola if you do not make a good impression on Dos Santos.

“International leaders seldom put pressure on national and transnational companies. As we all know, if one aspires to become an influential politician in the West one has to be able to count on the goodwill of the big companies,” he argues.

Kagwanja underscores Slabbert’s statements: “The West does not want to rattle the snake. They have lost their grip on the situation in Angola.”

But, he does not feel all is lost. “As a colleague said, Angola is a country under construction. Although there is currently a lack of political will and vision, I believe the gap between the poor and the rich can be bridged by introducing a more transparent and accountable political system.”

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