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ZAMBIA: Corruption in Water Sector Makes Clean Water A Pipedream

Danstan Kaunda

LUSAKA, Feb 20 2009 (IPS) - In his address to the National Assembly on Jan. 30, Zambia's finance and national planning minister, Situmbeko Musokotwene, allocated additional resources to the water sector, with the specific aim of preventing the spread of waterborne diseases. But Zambians have heard such promises before.

"Only 58 percent of our population has access to clean drinking water. To increase access to clean water and sanitation, we have allocated K214.4 billion ($42 million) to the national rural and urban water supply programme," he said. "These resources will improve current infrastructure and extend services to underserved areas, particularly peri-urban areas."

Bupe Kabwe has first-hand experience of life in the areas the minister refers to. She wakes up at five o'clock every morning to fetch water for her family in Chipata township, just outside of the country's capital Lusaka. The 29-year-old has to walk three kilometres to reach the nearest pump where she can draw clean water. Government promises changes are in the pipeline – but Zambians have heard that before.

Water supply in Zambia is highly uneven. According to 2004 statistics from the World Health Organisation and U.N. Children's Fund's Joint Monitoring Programme, only 40 percent of rural dwellers have access to safe drinking water, while 90 percent of urban residents have access.

A closer look at the impressive figure for cities reveals further inequality – like Kabwe, up to 70 percent of the population of the capital Lusaka live in peri-urban townships where Zambia's Department of Energy and Water Development reports only two-thirds have access to clean water, usually in the form of a communal standpipe.

"It's not safe for a woman to walk such a distance to collect water so early in the morning, but the taps are turned off by seven o'clock, and we cannot go without water the all day," Kabwe complains.

Because they lack access to clean water, many residents of peri-urban and rural areas have no choice but to use dirty rain water or unclean water from low streams. Some families have tried to dig shallow wells, often near pit latrines, not knowing about the health hazards this may cause.

Sanitation-related diseases including cholera and trachoma are the second biggest killer of Zambia's children after malaria. Cholera has claimed more than 500 lives since November 2008.

Corruption a major obstacle

The 2008 Global Corruption Report by Transparency International, an organisation that tracks corruption worldwide, took corruption in the water and sanitation sector worldwide as its focus.

"In developing countries," the report says, "about 80 per cent of health problems can be linked back to inadequate water and sanitation, claiming the lives of nearly 1.8 million children every year and leading to the loss of an estimated 443 million school days for the children who suffer from water-related ailments.

According to the Zambian Anti Corruption Commission (ACC), Zambia's national rural and urban water supply programme which funded the drilling of boreholes for rural communities, is a prime example.

"Instead of making water available to most of the rural poor, most of the boreholes were installed on government officials' private plots," ACC public relations officer, Timothy Moon, told IPS.

Another case, which is currently under investigation by the ACC, is a multi-million government tender to drill boreholes at two public universities, the University of Zambia (UNZA) and Copperbelt University, to supply water to the institutions.

The ACC noted irregularities, because the contract was awarded after only one company tendered for it – a company which is registered as a food processing enterprise, not an engineering firm.

Reuben Lifuka, president of Transparency International in Zambia, recommends that to curb corruption in the water sector, government should put in place legislation ensuring that public-private sector contracts meet minimum international standards.

"We need transparent budgeting and participatory policy-making so that we can have public mapping of water pollution, public audits of projects and access to contract terms and performance reports," Lifuka demanded.

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