LIBERIA: Water, Sanitation and Sustainable Development

By Francis W. Nyepon

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 8, 2007


Today, life in Liberia is no longer an unmitigated disaster, even through measured against the goals of a functioning economy; there is still room for growth. Our country has been put on a path to prosperity, and policies have been put in place to bridge our social divide. Liberia is appearing to have turned the corner by most benchmarks, especially if measured against our historical inequities and disparities, which have divided us since independence along the lines of class and ethnicity. But, hundreds of thousands of our people still suffer from chronic poverty due to the lack of access to safe water supply and sanitation that could have a drag on the progress made by President Sirleaf due to the premature death of innocent men, women and children, irrespective of differences in living conditions or station in life.

The lake of safe water and sanitation is responsible for a myriad of health problems which causes many Liberians to die needlessly from minor illnesses and preventable diseases that normally would not be fatal. For instance, in most peri-urban communities, children play on heaps of rotten garbage and use makeshift dumps as toilets, while scavengers rummage through garbage stockpiles for recyclable items of value to generate income. While safe water and adequate sanitation are daily challenges for many Liberians, what is needed then is a comprehensive national strategy, which promotes a campaign to change behavior and mindset by encompassing education, health, hygiene, nutrition, women's empowerment, community participation, and capacity-building through our broader social and developmental goals including the government’s Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy (IPRS).

Every Liberian has the right to accessible and reliable water and sanitation because they are essential to life, liberty and happiness to enhance productivity, improved living standards, reduce poverty and protect the environment through healthy ecosystems. The World Bank for example has found that poor sanitation and a lack of safe water impacts our economic growth, maintaining that the resulting problems incurred a collective loss of around $1billion dollars a year. The report also states that Liberia’s domestic water use is below 50 liters per person per day (the minimum requirement set by the World Health Organization), due to the fact that many Liberians, especially those living in rural and peri-urban areas, continue to expend enormous amounts of calories just to fetch water from distant sources, and go to the toilet ways away which in many cases impairs health, and diminishes livelihoods.

This author is convinced that safe water and sanitation is a primary driver of economic efficiency, social equity, and environmental sustainability. Is it conceivable then that without this perspective, Liberia’s recovery and fight to reduce poverty will remain a pipe dream and never become a principle cornerstone to our sustainable development goals? Hundreds of thousands of Liberians die each year from one of six main water-related diseases, while untreated and uncollected garbage poses severe health risk to people, food, and water bodies by transmitting diseases, which accounts for the high rate of typhoid fever, cholera and diarrhea, including poliomyelitis. Safe water and sanitation remains vital to the health, education, employment and wellbeing of Liberians. It is then imperative that they be incorporated as an essential component of the IPRS, and not just link to repairing destroyed urban water and sewer infrastructure, or constructing hand pumps and pit-latrines in rural and peri-urban communities.

Structural weaknesses in municipal governments have given rise to situations where no one seems to take charge, or provide guidance for service delivery. Municipal governments like the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) usually look to the central government for direction due to the lack of decentralization and independent revenue generation and management, which result in the lack of sufficient resource commitment to address critical social issues that later turn into chronic problems due to overcrowding, poverty and social exclusion entities. For example, Monrovia’s 1.6 million inhabitants generate 780 tons of solid waste daily, resulting in more refuse than the city government is capable of handling; thereby creating disturbing problems for residents and the environment. Sanitation workers, scavengers, Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and independent contractors disposed of only 20 per cent of Monrovia’s waste generation, leaving the rest to pile up and rot near road ways, water bodies, and in vacant lots, mangrove swamplands, and public spaces posing serious risk to public health, sustainable development and the environment. For instance, many residents of Monrovia have no choice but to illegally dump their refuse in public spaces, which contaminates ground and surface water and pollute the air due to a lack of a collection and disposal system.

Even though Liberia does not yet suffer from water scarcity due to its abundant water bodies and ample annual rainfall, the fact still remains that it is a non-renewable resource, and it is crucial for sustainable development, and as such needs to be treated as a strategic commodity affecting the entire country and not just the Monrovia Metropolitan Area (MMA). In addition, many Liberians still lack reasonable access to basic supply of safe water, which is a source for both life and death because of its linkage to agriculture, livelihood and sanitation. However, to solve this national tragedy, a comprehensive policy needs to be employed, which should include setting national targets, and allocating at least 5 to 8 per cent of the national budget into a national fund to deal solely with water and sanitation projects over the next 5 years throughout the country. The Sirleaf administration’s strategy on water and sanitation should be comprehensive enough that it links sustainable environmental initiatives with sustainable waste management, hygiene, and behavior mandating adequate functioning sanitation facilities in public places such as health centers, schools, and public buildings by putting effective systems in place through community involvement.

About The Author: Francis Nyepon is managing partner of DUCOR Waste Management in Liberia. He is a policy analyst and vice chair of the Center for Security and Development Studies, and serves on several boards of humanitarian, environmental and human rights organizations in the United States and Liberia. He can be reached at

© 2007 by The Perspective

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