African Center for Advocacy (ACA) has called on the Cameroon Water Utilities (CAMWATER) and the Ministry of Water and Energy to take full responsibility after a labour union declared their intention to hold an indefinite strike.
In a correspondence to the Head of State on 27 January, the Syndicat National des Employés de l’Eau Potable (SNEEP) denounced the utility’s “chaotic management”, describing a “massive mafia in the water sector” and “peddling, lying, mismanagement, backbiting, trickery, cronyism, scam, corruption and embezzlement of all kinds”.
Media report a ‘clash’ between the CEO of CAMWATER and the Minister of Water. That ‘clash’ led to slow acquisition and insufficient quantities of water maintenance products, resulting in poor water treatment, while the flouting of workers’ rights caused demotivation among staff.
In a statement issued in Yaoundé, ACA said the ’clash’ and disruption to water services are not random outcomes of bad governance or corruption, but a deliberate attempt to undermine public trust in state-run water and sanitation services. For big water corporates, it justifies ‘liberalisation’: an opportunity to outsource state services to the private sector.
ACA advocacy officer Younoussa Abbosouka said: “neglect, sabotage, and destruction of infrastructure become a way to create opportunities for privatisation, from which a certain ‘elite’ and businesses benefit directly and indirectly. This gives rise to inequality, social exclusion and the violation of the human right to water.”
Privateers often suggest that the public sector maintains control over a privatised asset or service. And if anything goes wrong, the government can simply fire the contractor or adjust the contract. This is not true. International private companies are protected by their government and the World Bank. When there is litigation between the two parties, it quickly turns into a bilateral dispute between countries. African governments can have difficulty exercising control over private companies operating in their water sector. This was the case in Gabon, where Veolia launched a complaint at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes after the state cancelled their contract. There was a similar case in Cameroon where the company claimed 19 million USD in compensation after the government decided to terminate their contract due to underperformance.
“It’s important not to repeat the mistake of 2008 where the government, under the influence of the World Bank, privatised the water sector”, said Abbosouka. “This led to various disasters, such as rate increases, lack of public accountability and transparency, higher operating costs, worse customer service and loss of jobs. The provision of decent social services by the public sector or government is at the centre of the struggle for democratic control and ownership of the water sector.”
The CEO of Camwater has since put in place a better strategy for managing water treatment products to guarantee a substantial safety stock and avoid possible shortages that would disrupt supply. He also plans to set up a permanent consultation framework with staff representatives to address common employee problems. SNEEP resolved to postpone its strike following a crisis meeting on 9 February in Douala with Gaston Eloundou Essomba, Minister of Water and Energy. Essomba committed to seizing the Head of State to get necessary resources to finance CAMWATER’s operation.
ACA also call upon CAMWATER to address the issue of water pricing by categorising the price per cubic meter of water by type of customer. This will increase the number of low-income households connected to the water distribution network.
ACA is closely monitoring privatisation threats in Cameroon and in other African countries. We believe that the fight against privatisation, austerity, neoliberalism and corruption is intimately linked with the fight for the human right to water. This fight necessitates building alliances among civil society organisations, non-government organisations, labour unions and communities at national, regional and international level.
ACA – in collaboration with its partners such as Corporate Accountability and Public Participation (Nigeria), Corporate Accountability (USA), Public Services International and End Water Poverty – rejects all forms of corporate control and privatisation of water services, including through so-called ‘public-private partnerships’.
ACA will participate in the Alternative World Water Forum (AWWF) in Dakar, Senegal, from 22-25 March. This will be an opportunity for us to share lessons from resisting water privatisation in Cameroon, to build partnerships with like-minded civil society and non-government groups and, most importantly, to learn from other organisations’ experiences.
This article is a follow-up to African Center for Advocacy’s blog ‘Governments must regain control of the water sector’, published in November 2019.