Role of the media in promoting water integrity

Accra’s  population of four million  is expected to double by 2030, further compounding the water situation
Accra’s population of four million is expected to double by 2030, further compounding the water situation

It is 6 a.m. 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 at Abofu, an informal settlement situated between Achimota and Abelemkpe in Accra.

Charity leads the way in the alleys of Abofu carrying a black plastic container, with her one–year-old child strapped to her back while her two other children follow her carrying two yellow jerrycans known as ‘Kufuor 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 Kufuor (2000–8), under whose rule Ghana experienced 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 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 four 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 using a piped rationing system managed by the GWCL. Additionally, there are private tanker services that 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

Moses Dzawu argues in an article published by Bloomberg   that many of the GWCL’s problems could 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.

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 (ISODEC), 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.

The media is widely regarded as a defence against abuse of power; and the excessive politicisation 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 shows that there is still a long way to go before the media plays its potential role of encouraging and catalysing change within the water sector.

Challenges of the media in 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 the 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 policy makers 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 the media is able to act effectively 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 Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII), a key member of the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition. This online platform helps to collect anonymous reports of bribes paid, bribes requested but not paid, and bribes that were expected but not forthcoming.

Looking ahead

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. The 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 toes the political line or fails to obtain the necessary support from the government, the private sector and civil society.

The writer is the Communications Officer at the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC).