Drops in the city: the puzzle of water privatization and consumption deficiencies in urban Ghana

water privatization

Kwaku Owusu Twuma,b,* and Mohammed Abubakaria

aHuts and Cities Ltd, Accra, Ghana bGold Coast Sustainability and Governance Institute, Accra, Ghana *Corresponding author. E-mail: kay4blez@gmail.com

Though it is essential to life, water continues to be a ‘luxurious need’ to the urban poor of Africa. Water management challenges here stem in part from a multi-dimensional lack of attention paid to the needs of this urban sub-community. In Ghana, one contributor to water governance difficulties is the recent, and massive, change in the ownership and control structures of its water industry, which has been transformed from a publicly owned monopolistic system, to a ‘public–private partnership’ system with localized private participation options. While these changes have contributed to local and national revenue generation, the water supply remains unstable, unpredictable, and inequitable due to systemic infrastructure imbalances. This post offers insights that consider whether, and if so the extent to which, the recent privatization of Ghana’s water governance interventions have negatively impacted water supplies to the urban poor.

Having examined both primary and secondary data, we find that the water supply in Ghana is simultaneously a scarce commodity for the urban poor and frequently an overabundant one for the rich. Having enacted and implemented globally hegemonic neoliberal water governance interventions (e.g. the aforementioned public-private partnership), Ghana is now faced with a public goods (water) governance system partially operated by private actors who prefer, and thus choose, to primarily service the needs/demands of the most profitable consumers – the urban rich; a special sort of supplier-client relationship is created in that regard. Being unable to pay well, or at all, the urban poor are concurrently disregarded by these same private actors, leading to water supplies being inaccessible, or worse, unavailable, to these populations.


It should be noted that Ghana’s previous publicly run, monopolistic, water system was in no way an exemplar of an efficiently, economically, effectively, and equitably delivered public good. However, an ‘unplanned consequence’ of Ghana’s recent water governance paradigm shift, has some urban rich – finding themselves overly resourced – morphing into informal private suppliers of water to the urban poor – for a price, of course. This arrangement unduly enriches the already-wealthy and sets the urban poor further into poverty, all while failing to solve the problems for which it was adopted: poorly conditioned and governed water infrastructure; stricter regulation of the private sector by the state is necessary.

Though necessary, stricter regulation of the private sector will be insufficient for achieving a more efficient, economical, effective, and equitable water governance system. Consequently, major proposals to rectify these ‘unplanned consequences,’ and to improve the system’s performance more generally, have been made. One proposal, utilizing an inclusivity-driven strategy to empower the urban poor to move beyond passive water consumption, has called for the development of a community/neighborhood-operated water supply system. 

Such a system ensures this constituency can equally initiate the chain of processes involved in governing urban water systems; a network of such locally controlled systems would permit these citizens to consolidate and exercise their civic authority in ways more effective than have been previously possible. Such proposals complement current private interventions and state regulations and would deliver increased water supply and accessibility for the urban poor while simultaneously reducing its oversupply to the wealthy.

Changes to Ghana’s water governance system resembling the proposals outlined above will require legislative force if they are to be sustainable. Doing so will additionally confer onto the administrative sector both the impetus and authority to more effectively and efficiently govern the operations of private ‘partners.’ Legal redress against private actor malfeasance by citizens is yet another impetus for pursuing legislation enacting policies such as those proposed herein.

water privatization

In general, our study provides a better paradigm for visualizing water privatization and opens a new channel in the extant discourse focused on urban water supply discrepancies in Ghana. It justifies the need for a critical re-evaluation of the focus of water supply investments in Ghana [and perhaps, other developing countries in the sub-Saharan African region] and offers solutions to move Ghana toward achieving the U.S.’s SDG6.

To cite this article: Owusu Twum, K. and Abubakari, M. (2020). Drops in the city: the puzzle of water privatization and consumption deficiencies in urban Ghana. In Goldcoast Sustainability Governance Institute’s Dialogues in Governance and Development Series, Vol. 1, edited by Wes Grooms.

Views herein expressed are of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the Goldcoast Sustainability Governance Institute.

Authur: Andy Nyamekye B

Academic and social enterprise researcher

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