Lights, water, action? Not so fast, Liberia

If Liberia had a lightbulb for everyone who has promised electricity as part of its reconstruction, the capital Monrovia would be lit up like Las Vegas, and not wreathed in perpetual darkness.

As the electoral campaign for October 11 polls winds down, presidential candidates are stepping up their promises, committing to bring current and running water to the roughly one million residents of the seaside capital within six months.

It’s a promise Monrovia has heard before, most recently two years ago with the arrival of the UN mission mandated to bring peace and security and help in the reconstruction of a country devastated by decades of civil war.

And still, beyond the humming generators that power the UN offices, non-governmental agencies and downtown hotels, and the faucets that pipe hot and cold running water to those same buildings, most people in Monrovia carry water in jerricans and make do with kerosene lamps and candles.

But even with a blank check, which corruption-prone Liberia is unlikely to ever receive, rebuilding an electricity grid where one has not existed since the early 1980s and providing running water where no taps have ever been placed requires an approach that integrates public health, community development and good governance.

First there’s the financial issue, says Francis Wellens, the technical assistance coordinator for the European Community, which has thus far committed 5,5-million from a budgeted â,¬14,7-million for water and electricity in the West African state.

“To produce 20 megawatts of electricity, which is presently the established consumption of the city, we’re talking between 15 and â,¬20-million euros,”, he told Agence France Presse.

“Then there’s the distribution costs, which will run about â,¬30-million, not to mention the costs of supplies and technical assistance that will be required since there are few experts in these fields who remain in Liberia.”

Refurbishing the White Plains water supply plant and dam, which was a target in both of the civil wars to ravage Liberia since 1989, could run as high as $100-million, Wellens said, part of which new development partner China has said it would assume though there have been no firm commitments.

Then there’s the time factor; even with the highest level of technical expertise, Wellens said, to assemble development partners, offer tenders to private sector investors and negotiate contracts will require months of planning and negotiating. And that’s even before one meter of pipe, or wire, is laid.

“We’re looking at being able to provide the first megawatts of electricity in January 2007, assuming that the schedule runs smoothly,” the EC expert said, stressing that it would take even longer to serve outlying areas that are the homes of the most impoverished of Monrovia’s citizens.

Neither power nor water can be generated in a vacuum, added Syma Jamil, the urban Monrovia programme director for Britain-based charity Oxfam, which works on water and sanitation issues in Monrovia’s most compromised areas rife with cholera and other diseases—not the least of which are apathy and community mistrust.

“You cannot begin to look at water without examining the public health issues, and public health cannot be discussed without talking about security and safety,” she said.

“And you cannot have security and safety without good governance, capacity and resources,” she said. “To do that you have to build communities, which in a country that has suffered 14 years of war, is a difficult proposition.” - AFP

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