Pipes dry after water sell-off

Water used to flow through the taps in Tabata, a sprawling suburb of whitewashed bungalows in Tanzania’s biggest city, Dar es Salaam.

These days, the faucets and steel water pipes stand empty in backyards while families send their children to fetch water from a well. Girls heave buckets on to their heads while boys as young as nine wrestle jerrycans on to barrows and trundle them down the streets.

It was not meant to be like this. When the city’s water utility was partly privatised last August, the intention was to rejuvenate a water network that had fallen into dire disrepair.

British firm Biwater was brought in to run the system.
The World Bank and other donors gave Tanzania a $143-million loan to revamp the water network.

There was a new name on bills, City Water, along with a logo resembling a water droplet. But a year later, critics say, the service remains patchy and tariffs have risen, while Tanzania has been saddled with yet more foreign debt.

In a recent report aid agency Action Aid warns: “As prices go up, the poor are likely to suffer most. There is already evidence that poor households are shifting towards unsafe water sources, with serious consequences for their family’s health.’‘

At the private well in Tabata, a 20-litre jerrycan sells for up to R1, a substantial sum in a city where many people live on less than R6 a day. Families too poor to buy this water dig shallow wells.

The water crisis is one symptom of the deep changes taking place in Tanzanian society. A country which once embraced socialism has embarked on a wholesale privatisation of its state-run industries.

About 400 state-owned companies, from handicrafts factories to the national airline, have been sold off or are earmarked for privatisation.

Only a handful of the companies made a profit in the public sector, and most drained money from government coffers.

Peter Young, a director of the consultancy firm Adam Smith International, which has advised the Tanzanian government on the sell-offs, said: “Even the diamond mine and the brewery were making losses, and it’s difficult to make a loss on a brewery.’‘

The retreat of the state has brought rapid transformation for Tanzania’s people. Instead of steady government jobs, there has been a burgeoning of small-scale private enterprise.

For many, the change is unsettling. As bloated state-owned companies have been trimmed in the private sector, young people are experiencing uncertainty.

But even critics of water privatisation accept that the system had to change. Before privatisation last year, only 98 000 homes in a city of 2,5-million had a direct water connection, and 60% of the water was being lost through leaks.

City Water blames the shortages on a string of equipment failures at one of the main water treatment plants. It says more water will flow now that this has been fixed. — Â

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