Dirty business: Sanitation in Ghana

October 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

“Aww, so much plastic. ūüė¶ ”

“I wonder where this¬†is all this coming from.”

“Are there no landfills in Ghana?”

“This can’t be healthy!”


"Free range" chicken and goats

“Free range” chicken and goats

My thoughts about trash in Ghana quickly progressed from a mild curiosity to a burning desire to understand all the social ills that cause this phenomena. It baffled me that a country with a thriving social sector and stable government hadn’t yet figured out how to dispose of trash in a way that kept it contained.

I started my search by asking everyone I met about their thoughts on trash. Ben, our driver, told me that people knew that littering was bad but simply didn’t care and thought that the government should do something about it. Others admitted that openly defecating was bad but at the same time didn’t seem too bothered by it. I then bolstered that data with online research from NGOs and interviews with leading¬†figures in the country. Here’s what I learned.

  1. It’s not even about the trash – I realized quite quickly that the plethora of trash is a symptom of a larger sanitation problem that exists in Ghana. ¬†Littering is the last thing you’re worried about when your children are malnourished and sickly due to ingesting contaminated water and food from all the fecal matter piled up in the gutter just a few feet away. And nobody’s going to blame the poor bloke urinating in the corner when the closest latrine is 7 minutes¬†away and costs 10 pesewas. The issue is exacerbated by poor infrastructure and lack of education on how the status quo perpetuates very real threats to one’s health. Which brings us to number 2.
  2. Malnutrition isn’t necessarily about not getting enough food, but more about being able to absorb the nutrients in the food that you do have access to¬†– I attended a talk¬†with Fiona Edwards, from¬†SPRING,¬†and she spoke at length about this topic. She spent her entire career battling malnutrition all over Africa and Southeast Asia and she found that malnutrition and sanitation issues are very highly linked. Poor sanitation leads to more viral and bacterial outbreaks and those outbreaks result in compromised internal¬†systems.¬†If you’re constantly having diarrhea due to a bacterial infection, it doesn’t matter how much food you put in your mouth¬†– it will all just come out the other end. To read more about the link between diarrhea and malnutrition, see here.
  3. ¬†Politicians are all talk – Multiple politicians and parties used sanitation as their election platform during the December 2013 elections. However, many have failed to enact actual policies that do anything to curb the endemic.¬†$52 million is earmarked to address sanitation issues in Ghana every year with 96.5% of that money coming from foreign donors (Source: WaterAid). ¬†Yet somehow that money often fails to realize tangible improvements. According to WaterAid’s 2012 report, Ghana only reported a 1% growth in sanitation, a stark juxtaposition to their goal of 54% by 2015.Modern Ghana reported in June¬†2013, “Ibrahim Musah, head of Policy and Partnership at WaterAid Ghana said since 2010 the government of Ghana has designed several sanitation policies, except they have all been kept on the shelves. He said although government had made provision for sanitation, the issue was how the environment directorate of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development would be able to access the funds for use, as ‘the funds do not just get to them.'”
  4. Shit gets imported – Part of the reason Ghana has so much more trash than a country like Malawi is because so many more products wrapped in plastic, and other synthetic materials, get imported. As the Ghanaian economy continues to improve and the average Ghanaian’s purchasing power increases, this will¬†only become a bigger problem. I also discovered that Ghana is a literal dumping ground for unwanted electronics from the first world.¬†Agbogbloshie, a suburb of the capital,¬†is the world’s largest e-waste dump. It’s a sad depiction of the wealthy using their influence to send toxic materials far, far away. The UN tried to combat this with the Basel Convention (The Basel Convention prevents the transfrontier shipment of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries) but countries either never ratified the convention or conveniently forget that they¬†signed it. Each month, cargo containers arrive in Agbogbloshie, often illegally, from countries all over the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan (Source: Wikipedia).

So how can we solve all of these problems?

We (you and I individually) probably can’t. But in searching for the answer to my original question of why there was so much trash, I also came across many commendable initiatives. A few enterprising individuals have created businesses and/or community efforts that use and recycle waste, turning them into things like bags or bracelets. There are also a few private companies that are tackling the waste issue, head on. However, I do think that more action from the government is needed, especially in the development of key infrastructure like closed sewage pipes, landfills, and latrines. The people also need to keep politicians accountable and demand that they¬†follow through on their promises.

But there’s a lot that first world citizens can do as well.¬†Greenpeace¬†advocates putting pressure on electronics companies to¬†phase out toxic chemicals and introduce global recycling schemes. There’s also a lot of opportunity for social entrepreneurs to make a difference by introducing cutting edge research and practices around safe trash disposal. By sharing best practices around landfill development, incineration, and¬†biomass/biogas processing techniques, we can help prevent Ghana from making the same mistakes we did.

Hopefully by writing and delving into this topic you’re at least a little inspired to make a change, whether that’s thinking more deliberately about your next electronics purchase or reaching out to a friend at a lab working on converting waste to biomass. Ghana has such a bright future ahead of it so why not help accelerate that progress?

My hope is that the next time we ask a kid to draw a picture of their community, it doesn’t include imagery of people defecating and urinating next to their homes.

Ghanaian village

Just lovely




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