Environment

Water Shortages Strain Residents Even in Ghana’s Capital

 

Article Highlights

ACCRA, GHANA – Nana Okyere Akrofie, 24, says it has been months since he and his neighbors have had water flow from their taps in North Legon, a suburb of Accra, Ghana’s capital.

“The situation is so bad that for over four months now, we have not had water supply in our area,” Akrofie says.

He says they used to get a constant flow of water in the past. Then Ghana Water Company Limited, the public company in charge of water here, rationed water to twice a week. Now, water is as inconsistent as ever. It doesn’t come on the scheduled days, making it difficult for residents to take advantage of their rare opportunity to have water in their homes.

“The flow is not constant,” he says. “You will have no idea if the taps will be opened on Wednesdays or Thursdays either at dawn or late in the evenings.”  

Akrofie lives in a residential area where most of the households have resorted to using polytanks to store water. When the taps are flowing, the water goes directly into the polytanks so families can ration it until the next time they receive water.

For those who can’t afford to install polytanks, they have to wake up early in the morning or forfeit time late in the evening in order to trek to other areas where people are selling water. He says people are tired from work and school, but they must queue to fill up their yellow buckets or jugs, called “Kufour gallons” because they say the water shortage began under former President John Agyekum Kufour, who was in office from 2001 to 2009.

Although Akrofie’s family can afford a polytank, he says it’s still not enough. They also buy water from tankers, vehicles that supply water to local construction sites. But Akrofie says this is more expensive than a monthly bill from the water company would be.

“When the family buys water from the tankers, the water is used for only two weeks – only two weeks!” he says, holding up two fingers for emphasis.

He says he can’t imagine how bigger families get by.

“In my house, we are only five, of which three are constant since some of us go to school and back on holidays,” he says. “You can therefore imagine other households who have larger family sizes and the cost they have to bear.”

Akrofie is in charge of monitoring how his younger siblings use water at home.

“The main tank is locked, so before one uses the water, he or she needs to come and report to me,” he says. “I in turn go with him or her, open the tap, monitor what they do with it and then I lock it again.”

He says they are paranoid about wasting water.

“We are so alert to the extent that immediately [when] we hear water splashes, we quickly rush to find out what the water is being used for in order to ensure that the splashes are for good use,” he says. “I know it sounds funny, but when you are in the situation, you will understand.”

Akrofie says water rationing hurts health and sanitation, as it is custom here to bathe twice a day, in the morning and at night.

“Sometimes, we bathe once a day because you cannot afford to waste water,” he says. “You need to be very strategic. This is because the water could be saved for other important use as well.”

He says the water shortage is especially difficult on women.

“When the ladies are in their menstrual period, that is the time they need to be extra mindful of their cleanliness,” he says. “I once heard my sister saying that she hates this season because she does not like the idea and routine of bathing once a day.” 

Akrofie also says that on top of the already scarce water, sometimes the water tankers bring in salty water that families can’t use at all.

“We cannot drink the salty water that they sometimes bring in,” he says. “When it comes to bathing, the water does not lather, and it makes you so uncomfortable.”

He says that Ghana Water Company fails to inform residents before water rationing or closing the taps.

“The officials always go like, ‘You should know that you don’t have water, so why should we announce?’” he says.

Akrofie and his neighbors are not alone in their lack of water. Residents in several suburbs of Accra are facing an acute water shortage.

The water shortage in Ghana plagues communities in the capital and across the country, forcing residents to resort to more expensive and difficult alternatives. Others cite the sanitation and health issues caused by the lack of water. Government officials cite various challenges but pledge they are doing their best to provide citizens with this most basic right. Water company representatives say that demand is greater than supply so the company and residents must work together to best use the available water.

If certain changes are made, it is possible for Ghana to meet goal seven of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. anti-poverty initiative that countries worldwide have agreed to complete by 2015. One target of goal seven is to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

The proportion of the population using improved drinking water sources rose from 56 percent in 1990 to 80 percent in 2006 in Ghana, according to the MDG Monitor. But many say that although the sources exist, the water flow from them is inconsistent.

Access to water varies from community to community. Some communities don’t have pipelines connected to their homes. Some do, but the water flow is inconsistent or dirt frequently seeps in. Some families in these situations can afford to buy water from tankers. Others have to travel long distances in search of water, sometimes buying it from people who have tanks or wells at their homes.

Charis Laryea, 15, lives in Osu, an area of Accra where families have pipelines connected to their homes. But she says she does not know why water can’t simply flow through their taps.

“I know that people pay taxes, and monies are collected by the Ghana Water and Sewage Company to provide us with water, but they don’t do so,” she says.

Some residents say they have not had water flow through their pipes for the past two years. As a result, they spend between 3 cedi to 6 cedi ($1.80 to $3.60) on water daily, making six to 12 trips with buckets to obtain it from alternative sources.

Another alternative is to buy from the tankers who go from house to house distributing water at a fee or sell it at the construction sites they supply. The cost ranges from 45 cedis ($30) for 500 gallons to 75 cedis ($45) for 1,000 gallons. Families store the water in polytanks or larger containers.  

Frederick Sefa lives in Tantra Hill, a suburb of Accra. At home, his family has a personal borehole and a machine to pump the water. It costs between 4,500 cedis to 5,000 cedis ($2,700 to $3,000) to dig and create a borehole. They also have a separate tank of water for cooking, which cost 250 cedis ($150). But not all families can afford these extra expenses.

Opoku Nimfour lives in Tantra Hill as well. Because the area is located on a mountain, he says it is difficult to pump water into it. He used to wake up at 4 a.m. with his brothers, especially on school days, to scour the neighborhood for water with Kufour gallons. But because of the stress this caused, his dad eventually built a borehole at their home.

Bernice Arkoh lives with her family in Kasoa, a small town closer to the Central region of Ghana. They moved there about eight years ago.

“A drop of water has not flowed through our taps ever since,” she says. “In addition, most of the water sources we have are boreholes. Therefore, those who can afford to buy water from the tankers need to do so at very exorbitant costs. It ranges from 70 to 100 Ghana cedis [$40 to $60].” 

Arkoh says that the boreholes are only a better option for people who live on new properties because pipelines have not been laid there yet. Instead of waiting for the water company to lay down the pipes, they can build boreholes.

“Those who cannot afford it need to trek long distances with the yellow gallons,” she says.

In addition, they also rely on rainfall to complement their water supply.

“We are always hoping it rains because when it does, we are able to harvest water and use it,” she says.

Some residents in various communities also install underground water pipes illegally.

Prosper Amoah, 16, lives in the Upper East region of Ghana. He says they don’t have water shortages because most communities have boreholes that were dug out or built by nongovernmental organizations. But Amoah says that even though they have water sources, they aren’t fully functional.

“Some of the wells or boreholes are not dug deep enough,” he says. “Due to this, after some time, water stops flowing from underground, and this leaves the wells dry.”

He says lack of water accessibility also creates sanitation problems. Sometimes when the dump where the school deposits its garbage is overflowing, some students must go to the field and clear it. Without water, they can’t wash their hands afterward and are more prone to getting sick.

“A healthy body makes a health mind,” he says. “If sanitation in schools is not good, academic progress will be impeded.”

The Third Ghana Water Forum took place in September 2011 in Accra. Government officials, water sector professionals, stakeholders and partners discussed access and availability, reliability, affordability and storage of water under the theme “Water and Sanitation Services Delivery in a Rapidly Changing Urban Environment.”

Alban Bagbin, minister for water resources, works and housing, said at the forum that low pressures in pipelines and the ongoing load shedding in terms of electricity made it difficult for people living in hilly areas to get water. It’s also difficult to ensure clean water and sanitation delivery to unplanned communities, in which residents build without regards to local ordinances.

He said that many urban dwellers under the age of 20 had never seen water flow from their taps, which was a cause for worry. But he said the government was doing its utmost best to take care of the water and sanitation needs in all of Ghana’s communities.

Akrofie says that so far, only the government officials are being taken care of. He says various ministers who live in his area manage to receive water in their taps.

“The funny thing is that a few minutes’ drive away from our neighborhood into the next street, you find water flowing from the taps of certain ‘big men’s’ homes,” he says.

By “big men,” he means government officials.

“You ask yourself, ‘What is the reason?’” he says. “The channel through which they are able to get water? Officials should ensure that they get us water as well. All I want is water flowing through our taps. We are not interested in the technical bits. If water flows, am OK.”

Akrofie says that Ghana Water Company also seems unreachable. He says he hasn’t made any official complaints to officials at the water company.

“This is because, in the first place, you don’t even know when to go or who to report to,” he says. “Personally, I don’t know where the Madina office is located. I have searched but cannot find.”

He says he has tried to reach out to local media, but that this has also fallen short.

“I have called a number of radio shows such as the Capito Show on a private radio station, which talks about consumer protection,” he says. “The presenter of that show said he will be doing some follow-ups, but nothing has happened so far.”

Stanley Martey, communications manager for Ghana Urban Water Company Limited, a subsidiary company that manages the operations of Ghana Water Company Limited, says that the water company can produce 100 million liters of water a day, but the demand is 150 million liters in the Accra metropolis.

“This means that there is a deficit between demand and supply and a demand of 50 million liters of water daily,” he says. “Due to the high demand of water, GUWCL came up with a philosophy, which is to share the water equitably so that at least every consumer can have access to water.”

He says that under this rationing system implemented six to eight years ago, each zone receives water on a different day.

“On a particular day, maybe Monday, the water is pumped into one zone, and as a result, all the areas which fall under that zone get access to water,” he says. “Some areas get water supply for some hours in a day, and others get a whole day of water flowing through their taps.”

He says that the location and the nature of the water company’s network of pipes means that some zones receive a more constant flow than others.

“It is such that if you want to send water to zone B, it definitely has to go through zone A, and it therefore becomes very difficult for those in zone A to be isolated,” he says. “So whiles it is the turn of zone A to get their water, they will, and when it is the turn of zone B to get their water, zone A will get a constant flow because it has to go through them to reach zone B.”

He attributes the random times that water flows to hydraulics.

“If some communities live away from the source, it will take a longer time for the pressure to build up for them to get water flow,” he says. “That is why some get their water flows at 2 a.m. or odd hours.”

He says the company recommends that families store the water on the days their zones receive it.

“We have had a campaign for the need for people to store water so that you store water whiles water is flowing,” he says. “By so doing, people can resort to their storage when water does not flow. This is how the water situation is being solved in the Accra metropolis.”

As for complaints of unclean water, he says that dirt may enter during the distribution process, since it’s impossible for bacteria to survive the treatment process. He says pressure on the underground system of pipes sometimes leads to bursts, which consumers can report 18 hours a day by calling or texting the company’s hotline.

“We ensure that people desist from building on our pipelines, but consumers are recalcitrant and do the opposite,” he says. “In addition, some of the pipelines cross roads and are beneath. Therefore, the pressure from vehicles and trucks may cause them to burst. Consumers may see dirt in their water because the soil goes through.”

 

He says dirt also enters the water when people try to access water from pipes illegally.

“Most of our consumers indulge in illegal practices, such as illegal connection,” he says. “Because the lines are buried, some people tap into our lines to fetch water at night. And when they do that, they easily introduce dirt into the water since they are not professionals.”

He says this criminal practice also causes the company, and therefore other customers, to lose water.

“We are losing close to 50 percent of the water that we produce to some of these practices,” he says.

He says it also hurts the company’s ability to serve its customers if they don’t pay their bills.

“If people don’t do so, it becomes very difficult for us to reinvest into the system,” he says. We also import chemicals, which are quite expensive to treat the water. We always complain about cash flows. Now when we do not have money to pay our workers, they are not motivated enough to work hard in order to service the consumer.”

Bagbin says that by 2015, Ghana aims to increase safe drinking water by 85 percent under goal seven of the Millennium Development Goals. Nana Agyapong Debrah, secretary of Friends of River and Water Bodies, a nongovernmental organization, suggests a public-private partnership to meet this goal.

Martey says this partnership could work if implemented appropriately.

“Yes, the idea is welcomed,” Martey says.

Martey also encourages consumers to do their part by making sure not to waste water while washing their cars or watering their lawns since others need it to survive.

Participants in the Third Ghana Water Forum cited poor attitudes toward conservation by citizens, such as brushing their teeth with the tap running, washing clothes in smaller loads instead of in bulk and polluting. But they also mentioned maintenance negligence by Ghana Water Company, as residents say that precious potable water is wasted while waiting for the company to respond to pipe bursts.

Akrofie says that authorities must change the water situation today to ensure a healthy tomorrow.

“Ghana is for us all,” he says. “Authorities should be very much aware that whatever they do today, it will affect the young ones of tomorrow. They should always set good examples for us to follow, else we will be forced to say that the country has no future.”

He says water is crucial to the well-being of a nation.

“We move as a nation with water flowing in abundance,” he says. “By so doing, we will be like the Israelites who live on a desert but have water in abundance.”