Ghana’s water utilities are undermined by corruption, impeding the ability of millions of Ghanaians to access safe water resources. The media can play an important role in pushing back corruption in several ways. But often, the media’s potential as watchdog is not fulfilled. This article highlights the key challenges that the Ghana’s media sector faces and argues that it is not likely to ensure greater water integrity without support from the government, the private sector, and civil society.
It is 6am on a Saturday morning and Charity Abiamo, a street vendor of oranges, is on a daily mission with her three children to find water. Charity and her children live in Abofu, an informal settlement situated between Achimota and Abelemkpe in Accra, Ghana’s capital.
Charity leads the way in the alleys of Abofu carrying a black plastic container, with her one–year-old child strapped to her back whilst her two other children follow her carrying two yellow jerrycans known as ‘Kuffour gallons’. These yellow one-gallon containers, which have become a symbol of the water shortage in Ghana, were named after the country’s former president, John Agyekum Kuffour (2000–8), under whose rule Ghana experienced a severe water crisis.
The journey from Charity’s home to the source of drinking water, a large drainage channel connecting to the Odaw River in Accra, takes between 10 and 15 minutes. As Charity arrives, other families are already at the Odaw drainage channel, stretching over the edge with their containers to collect water from an overflowing algae-infested pipeline. Charity claims she uses the water for cooking, drinking and washing, despite the water not being treated considering the lack of suitable and safe alternative water sources.
Accra’s water problems
Accra, Ghana is a fast-growing urban area that is facing considerable planning challenges including access to clean water owing to its rising population. With a current total of 4 million, the city’s population is expected to double by 2030, further compounding the water situation as illustrated by Charity.
Water supply to urban populations in Accra is assigned to the Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL). Water is provided for inhabitants of these regions using a piped rationing system managed by the GWCL. Additionally, there are private tanker services to provide water to areas that are not served by the GWCL. Despite these measures, both high and low income earners in Accra still face a great challenge in accessing water. High-income earners in areas with piped water connections even purchase large water-storage vessels, such as the ‘poly-tank’, to store enough water to last them a week or more. Those in the low-income bracket rely on small, unhygienic storage systems and informal vendors such as the water-tanker services, community standpipes and boreholes for their daily use.
Poor integrity contributes to water woes
In an article published by Bloomberg, Moses Dzawu (2013) argued that many of the GWCL’s problems can be attributed to weak and outdated pipes, which fail to support the mass production and distribution of water to certain parts of the capital, as well as poor management, a lack of transparency and accountability, and corruption.
Similarly, Peter Van Rooijen (2008) maintains that corruption, together with a lack of transparency and accountability, is a key challenge hindering the GWCL’s effective operation. Corruption in the water sector in Ghana takes many forms, from misappropriations of huge sums of money to illegal connections and consumption of water. Indeed, stories of corruption have always dominated the media space in Ghana.
The link between media and integrity
The media, along with other agencies, plays an important role in corruption detection and promoting transparency and accountability in the water sector. Scholars argue that Ghana’s media has contributed largely to the country’s democratic efforts by holding the state accountable, promoting citizen education and participation, and monitoring state institutions.
In fact, in 2001, the media, together with the Integrated Social Development Centre (ISSODEC), successfully opposed a World Bank-backed project to fully privatise the GWCL. This effort was largely carried out through increased media reportage, in order to educate the public on the dangers of such privatisation (Amenga-Etego and Grusky 2005: 275).
The media is widely regarded as a defence against abuses of power; excessive politicization of national matters in the Ghanaian media is therefore very worrying. The lack of coverage and at times biased coverage on corruption or lack of integrity show that there is still a way to go before the media plays its potential role of encouraging and catalysing change within the water sector.
Challenges for the media on water integrity
The Water Integrity Network (WIN) supports and connects partners, individuals, organisations and governments promoting water integrity in order to reduce corruption and improve water-sector performance worldwide. In its Water Integrity Global Outlook 2016, it maintains that in order to fight corruption in the water sector there is a need for people to first recognise that corrupt practices exist. Local and national media both have an important role to play in bringing issues of corruption to the attention of civil society, the public and policymakers, to ensure that action is taken through policy or advocacy.
Several things come into play here: first, ownership of the media can play a role. The question of whether the media is independent or state-owned influences the extent to which it can be critical about the level of corruption in state institutions. State media tends to be less critical of government institutions, whilst the private media will most likely be more critical.
Furthermore, the amount of resources available to journalists may influence how effectively the media is able to act as a watchdog in fighting corruption. Ghanaian reporters are often poorly paid, under-resourced and lacking in training. As a result, journalists in Ghana find themselves susceptible to bribery and self-censorship.
Aside from low salaries, the Ghanaian media also suffers from weak capacity. There is a lack of adequate training and mentoring for thousands of journalists in the country in general and in specific the water sector, even though some donor organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have attempted to train reporters. Most of these attempts have, in fact, been frustrated by a lack of commitment from the journalists themselves.
The social media debate
Social media presents opportunities as well as challenges for the future of the news media in promoting integrity in the water sector. It offers many people new ways of networking, and of sharing and receiving information outside of the mainstream media such as TV, radio and newspapers.
Social media can serve as a mechanism to ‘name and shame’ corrupt officials and share information on corruption using blogs and corruption-reporting platforms such as ‘I PAID A BRIBE’ by the GII in Ghana. This online platform helps to collect anonymous reports of bribes paid, bribes requested but not paid, and bribes that were expected but not forthcoming.
The watchdog role of the media does not end at producing information about misbehaviour, but also concerns how that information is used to hold people accountable for their actions. A government must know that people want responsiveness and wish to hold those in power accountable for their actions. A country’s media is likely to have a minimal effect on corruption if it tows the political line or fails to obtain the necessary support from the government, the private sector and civil society.
If the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on water is to be achieved, the issue of water integrity should be taken more seriously by the media because it plays a key role in various aspects of the SDGs.
It is important that new initiatives are established where the media is further encouraged to take a keen interest in reporting on water related issues. International non-profit organisations, such as WIN, as well as other civil-society organisations have a role to play in ensuring that journalist networks are supported to report on these issues. It is important that the interest of journalists in reporting on such issues is sustained, which could be done through involving them in training courses or broadening their knowledge and awareness on integrity issues in the sector. The government has a role to play in ensuring that the space for the media remains open and that their safety on reporting on sensitive issues is assured.
International non-profit organisations, such as WIN, as well as civil society organisations should intensify their efforts in supporting the media to report on water issues. Journalists who show an interest in the water sector should be given the opportunity, through training courses, to broaden their knowledge and awareness of integrity issues in that sector.
Finally, there is a need for enhanced monitoring mechanisms to be utilised by citizens, civil society and the media in order to strengthen accountability and transparency, and to ensure value for money in water-service delivery.
This post is a shortened version of the original article that can be found here