Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Accra’s citizens build their own drinking water network: convoluted but effective

By Joris Tieleman & Justus Uitermark 

One sunny morning, excavators were cutting up and levelling the ground for a new railroad through Sebrepor, a neighbourhood on the periphery of Ghana’s capital, Accra. As the machines plowed through the dusty red soil, they crashed through a PVC water distribution pipeline. Residents nearby soon noticed the water gushing out.

Strikingly, the residents’ first calls did not go to the state Ghana Water Company (GWC) but to a fellow resident, Jacob Milehu. Known to all as ‘Mr Jacob’, Milehu is a local plumber who founded the resident-organised Sebrepor Water Committee some 40 years ago, which extended the first water pipeline to the area as it was being settled by farmers and retired soldiers. He has gone on to build the water network for three adjacent neighbourhoods, working with crews of neighbourhood volunteers and the local chief.

Rushing to the railroad construction site, Mr Jacob quickly closed several valves at crucial nodes throughout the neighbourhood. When the team from the Ghana Water Company finally arrived on the scene, they asked Mr Jacob to stay on and help them in planning the repairs of the network. In fact, as he explained, it would have been nearly impossible without him: “The network here, we never mapped it. We did the construction ourselves, so the lay-out is in my head, that’s all.”

Over the last few decades, like many urban areas around the world, the built-up area of Greater Accra has grown at a huge speed and scale, more than doubling every ten years. This level of growth means that massive amounts of infrastructure need to be built to service the newly settled areas, including water pipelines, roads, electricity wires, gutters and sewers, all of which have to be extended at breakneck speed to service the rapidly expanding peripheries.  

The expansion of the built-up area of Accra, Ghana, 1991–2014.
Source: Angel et al. (2016), City Data Sheets.

Three pathways to build infrastructure

To build infrastructure at such speed is a challenge that would be beyond any single entity, be it government agencies or corporations. Yet in Accra, an astounding amount of this infrastructure has nonetheless materialised. How? Well, in a paper, recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, we identify three pathways through which this can happen: community action, cascades, and state action.

Community action is what happened in Sebrepor and it is very common. Many of Accra’s neighbourhood-level pipeline networks are built by people like Mr Jacob and the groups of residents they bring together. What these groups cannot do is construct and maintain the bigger pipelines, the distribution system, and of course the water purification facilities. It is only the local delivery networks that are constructed in such a fashion. But all these small local networks do add up to thousands of kilometres of crucial pipeline.

The second pathway of infrastructural integration—that of the cascade—occurs when wealthy residents take private initiative to set up services, thereby lowering costs for others. This pathway is particularly relevant in contexts, such as that of Ghana, where the dominant philosophy of “cost recovery” dictates that residents are only connected to a given service if they cover the marginal costs of the connection or extension. When a wealthy household pays to get a connection extended to its home, less affluent households nearby or along the connection’s route also see their utility prices drastically reduced.

The third pathway of infrastructural integration is state action, variously based on altruistic, paternalistic, or opportunistic reasoning. The urban poor are a potentially powerful bloc, and politicians seek to coax them through the promise of services. In addition, international charities, donor countries, and institutions such as the World Bank work with governments to extend infrastructure into poorer neighbourhoods.

The same three pathways are also true for the expansion of the electricity network: citizens or local entrepreneurs build many of the new connections, sometimes even hooking up to the mainlines illegally. When the state company finds out about these illegal connections, they often do not rip them down but instead integrate the citizen-built connections into the main system and into their maps.

There is one major difference between electricity and water connections: the electricity lines are visible, above ground. This enables the state utility company to really manage the entire network once it is built. With water, however, that is just not feasible. It is impossible to trace the locations of all the pipelines. The new neighbourhoods of Accra are built in a far too haphazard fashion for that. Plots of land are often sold haphazardly, and each new household connecting opportunistically to the nearest water line at the time. The underground pipe network is therefore not a neat grid, but rather a convoluted web that reflects the intricate history of that particular jumble of streets.

The government are playing catch-up

Through the combination of these three pathways, the newly growing neighbourhoods of Accra have been getting connected to the city’s water and electricity networks at an astounding rate. But it is not easy. The neighbourhood networks built through such a combination of efforts tend to be intricate and opaque, forcing local Ghana Water Company managers to play a perennial game of catch-up. They are now trying to map all the mainlines and meso-lines of the network, to at least have the big picture of their network in one data system. Of course, this mapping project captures only the larger lines; the intractable underground maze of house-to-house pipelines is not even considered.

There is a more fundamental problem arising from the self-organized extension of pipeline networks. As larger and larger areas connect on from the brittle little pipelines that were once laid by the likes of Mr Jacob to serve their own household and a few around it, the water no longer flows reliably to many parts of the network. The production capacity, too, has become insufficient to supply all the city’s rapidly growing demand.

An overview of the rate of flow throughout Greater Accra. Blue and green areas have sufficient pressure, orange and red areas have insufficient pressure
Source: Ghana Water Company, 2012.

The government utility company is working hard to regain control over the pipeline network and boost production, but they are facing an uphill battle. The poor reliability has led wealthy residents, those with money, power, and political influence, to increasingly opt out. They are drilling private boreholes on their land, ordering tanker trucks to deliver the freshwater directly to their home, and using pre-packaged drinking water rather than relying on what the pipes can deliver. This means they see less and less reason to throw their political weight behind the infrastructural upgrades and investments which the citywide water system so desperately needs.

The progressive expansion of the pipe network thus threatens to grind to a halt, giving way to a fragmented constellation of water infrastructures. This downward spiral can be prevented by state investments in the system’s backbone infrastructure. That is, water treatment plants, mainline distribution pipes, and booster stations. The state should also work to disincentivizing elites to opt out, for instance, by obliging developers of new estates to connect to the pipe network and regulating boreholes and other private supply channels more strictly.

About the Authors: Joris Tieleman recently defended his PhD thesis at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies, Erasmus University of Rotterdam. His work focuses on the growing outskirts of Accra, analysing self-organisation among citizens and in particular the role of traditional authorities, churches and resident associations. Justus Uitermark is professor of Urban Geography at the University of Amsterdam. Justus studies cities from a comparative and historical perspective. He looks at how power relations are expressed in the built environment: which groups and interests prevail and which are pushed into the background? As a relational sociologist, he focuses on networks: what sorts of networks do people form to resolve their collective problems and achieve their goals vis-à-vis others? With a background in human geography, he is particularly interested how different kinds of environments mediate collective action.

Suggested further reading

Uitermark, J. and Tieleman, J. (2020), From fragmentation to integration and back again: The politics of water infrastructure in Accra’s peripheral neighborhoods. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (Available open access)

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