The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals for poverty eradication aim to halve the number of people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015.
It's before 5 a.m. and still dark when Ayo Taylor shakes his children awake and sends them out to collect water – the daily grind for most people in impoverished Sierra Leone where millions of lives are blighted by disease and death from unclean drinking water.
The public tap, near the Taylor home in the Wellington district just outside the capital of Freetown, runs infrequently and in spurts. When it does not, the family forages for water from a community well or a polluted stream several hours' walk from home.
This morning, the state-owned water authority that controls the taps has turned the water on. So, all seven of Taylor's children fall into the long, disorderly queue, where some have marked their places in line by leaving pots, plastic buckets and jerry cans overnight. Most in line are children, many of them girls, who wait several hours for their turns at a pipe that juts out of a rocky hillside, splashing mud as it empties onto the bare ground.
"A lot of children start out while it's still dark to try and get an early place at the public taps," said Mustapha Koroma, a senior health inspector in Wellington, a district whose abject poverty is exposed in the unpaved dirt roads, open sewers and shanty homes without water or electricity.
"Many kids end up dropping out of school because they can't keep up with studies," Koroma said.
School-age boys frequently roam the streets during daytime when they should be in school, trying to sell plastic bags filled with tap water to supplement meagre family incomes. Because they are usually expected to do the housework and water chores, women and girls suffer most, missing out on opportunities like education and work.
When the neighbourhood taps are dry, which sometimes happens two or three times a week, Taylor and his family are forced either to drink unsafe water from a well or stream, or to buy drinking water from hawkers at nearly US $1 for a five-gallon jerry can – a huge sum in a country where many people live in poverty on less than a dollar a day.
"Imagine having to buy water for such a large family," says Taylor, 62, whose unsteady income of about US $50 a month is not nearly enough to buy clean water for his entire family every time the taps are dry.
Unsafe drinking water is at the heart of major health woes in many developing countries, especially in Africa. But even by the continent's own standards the health statistics are alarming for Sierra Leone, which the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranked as the world's poorest nation in 2004.
The life expectancy of 41 years seems barely believable; one child in four dies before the age of five; the mortality rate is the second highest in the world; 40 per cent of children suffer from diarrhoea.
Two-thirds of the population have no access to safe drinking water – that means they live more than one kilometre from the nearest safe water source – and collect water from drains, ditches or streams that might be infected and cause severe illness or death, according to the UNDP's 2006 Human Development Report.
Behind the grim statistics on Sierra Leone, there are the real-life tragedies of people like Mabinty Bangura, who lost her seven-year-old son Abdul Karim last month to cholera, a water-borne intestinal disease.
"He complained of stomach aches and diarrhoea, and died only days later," whispered Bangura.
Edward Nahim, a physician at the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, said that water-related diseases should be taken as seriously as HIV and AIDS.
"There is a lot of attention and several millions of dollars are spent on HIV and AIDS, and now even on eradicating malaria," said Nahim. Although water-borne diseases don't receive the same attention, they are responsible for more people getting sick than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined."
The UNDP report said that diarrhoea kills more people globally than tuberculosis or malaria, and that five times as many children die of diarrhoea from unsafe water as of HIV/AIDS. It identified clean water and sanitation as fundamental to progress around the world.
"Clean water and sanitation can make or break human development. They are fundamental to what people can do and what they can become – to their capabilities," the report said. "The violation of the human right to clean water and sanitation is destroying human potential on an epic scale," it added.
In Freetown, blame for the capital's water woes falls on the Guma Valley Water Company, the state-owned authority that supplies the capital. But GVWC officials say their facilities are overstretched, beginning with a dam that was built to supply a 300,000 population which has grown to well over one million.
Last summer bad rains plunged Freetown into one of the worst water shortages in four decades, when the GVWC announced there was only six feet of water left in the 100-foot Guma Valley river reservoir, the lowest level in 39 years. The taps were opened only on alternate days and water was severely rationed until better rains brought some relief.
GVWC officials say that investment is needed to improve things, and with water given away without charge at the public water pipes, there is nothing to plough back on improvements.
The International Monetary Fund has ruled strongly in favour of privatising Sierra Leone's state enterprises. In 2001 it made privatisation a condition of its aid package, and also required Sierra Leone to join the Heavily Indebted Poor Country debt relief process. In 2005 the IMF and World Bank approved Sierra Leone's anti-poverty strategies, which included the proposed privatisation of 24 enterprises, including the water authority.
But privatising a commodity as essential as water in poor countries like Sierra Leone is highly sensitive. Advocates of private sector investment see that as the only choice for moving forward. Critics fear it will mean only those able to afford it will receive water connections while the poor, who cannot afford connection and meter charges, will be left dry.
The UK is a major donor to Sierra Leone and several UK-based organisations concern themselves with the challenges facing Sierra Leone. "Privatisation means that consumers in developing countries are better off than they were before reform," the London-based Globalisation Institute said in its 2006 report, "Water For Life."
"They are assured access to a certain amount of water and often receive subsidised amounts beyond that, and they have the benefits of a regular, clean supply to boot," the pro-privatisation think tank added in its report.
But the UK-based campaigning organisation, the World Development Movement (WDM) claims the poor will not benefit. It has strongly opposed water privatisation in Sierra Leone, and opposes the British government's decision to award a £2.6 million contract in Sierra Leone to Price Waterhouse, accusing the consultancy firm of being biased towards privatisation.
WDM says it "believes that it is critical that all the reform options are considered for water supply in Freetown, not just different types of privatisation." It is important that "proper consultation takes place which includes the poorest communities," says WDM.
Morag Baird of the British government's Department for International Development (DfID) in Sierra Leone, said that "there is no presumption towards privatisation of the GVWC." She said that DfID has recently agreed to a £5 million programme with the GVWC, "for assistance to the GVWC in preparing a strategic water supply plan for Freetown (and) some support to civil society engagement in the sector". The bulk of the money, she said, will go into a joint World Bank and GVWC fund for physical improvements to water supply.
DfID is also supporting a £50,000 project through ActionAid Sierra Leone for a public survey of the water situation, said Baird. About half the money had been disbursed, and a large household survey in Freetown had been completed.
The WDM also argues that changes are being railroaded without public debate to an uninformed population.
International institutions like the World Bank and IMF insist that national decisions about poverty reduction must be made in consultation with stakeholders such as community leaders, non-governmental organizations and the legislature. But parliamentary and civil society leaders said they had not been consulted, or included in any debate.
"There has been no discussion of the water and sanitation policy to members of the Parliamentary Committee," said Sheku Badara Bashiru Dumbuya, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Power.
"Issues are not being pushed out to the public for a debate, but are being driven by donors and a small number of staff at the National Commission for Privatisation (NCP), who believe they have the mandate to privatise," said Sallieu Kamara of the Network Movement for Justice and Development, a local civil society organisation.
Most people in Freetown know little or nothing about the water privatisation plans, which are expected to be completed by 2010, nor of the fears that privatisation could push up prices .
Juxon Smith, spokesman for the privatisation commission that is overseeing the changes at the Guma Valley Water Company, said the NCP has proposed a regulatory authority to ensure water remains affordable to all.
"It will look at questions of tariff to ensure they are adequate, affordable and reasonable," Smith said. "It will also take into consideration the concerns of domestic consumers, poor and vulnerable communities, as well as commercial clients."
"On the other hand," he said, "we will look at the needs and circumstances of the water company."
Alpha Kamara, a Freetown journalist, does not believe a private enterprise will put the poor before profit. "Water privatisation will make people get affordable clean safe drinking water but on the other hand, it will make it very expensive for the low income earners. A private firm that takes Guma Valley will only supply those that can afford to pay, and leave the rest to wallow in swamp water," he said.