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May 10, 2008 | News

Sanitation - a myth or a reality in Ghana?


The world is becoming even smaller place to be and with all the modern technologies, travelling to different countires have been improved and made easier. This is a significant progress indeed. It is good to travel the world and learn from each other's progress and development pathways. On the other hand, r the drawback for these travels are people expectations of sanitation. Whilst many countries have realised the significance of proper santiation and cleanliness not many countries have grasp that idea to date. In many parts of the world public toilets and sewerage disposal have been underestimated. In Ghana public toilets continue to cause embarrassment to our country. Our facilities around all main transport stations are unacceptable in any developed world. We claim to be a developing world yet issues such as santiation have not been tackled head on by any given Government of the day. Some Ghanaians are still carrying human waste on their heads known as night soil. It is not surprising that in some parts of our Capital cities this practice still goes on. Does this not carry any stigma on to other family members? Yet in the same country whilst most people are busy buying the lasted computer systems , TV and all the modern com that makes a pleasant life in contrast some Ghanaians still carry human waste at night.

Anyone who goes to Ghana wants to hang around the historic seaports, and enjoy the scenery along the sea however these areas are rather bleak and uninviting. What one sees instead are open gutters which becomes blocked with silt , human excreta, rubbish etc. There is an unwelcoming odour around those areas too. As I have mentioned in one of my articles whilst other countires are cashing in all along their sea sides and created jobs and other resorts in Africa and particularly in Ghana just few people along our coastal areas grasp these opportunties. The thoughts of job creation perhaps never occurs to those around living around these areas as to what measures is needed with help from Ngo, Government and other agencies to transform areas into a money making machine.

It is hard to believe that ruling Governments are not quick to spot the opportunities to improved sanitation in Ghana. Would it be fair to say that we need proper toilet facilities at all tro tro stations, the Neo plan Stations or the State transport Stations. Why are our various Governments not addressing this head on since PM Busia? Don't they see this as a priority?

Does Ghana wants to be classified as a third world country for ever? Come on! Ghana must stand up to this political hot potato. Our former Prime Minister, Dr Brefa Busia was started a project of a proper sewerage system at Accra Metropolitan Area (A.M.A)in the 1970's. This idea was promptly abandoned when the OAU asked Ghana to break diplomatic relations with Israel. All the Israeli engineers doing a marvellous job in Accra were sent packing. Meanwhile, Egypt that first asked for the diplomatic disruption, went ahead and restored diplomatic relations with
Israel. Ghana refused, Busia having sadly then been overthrown was by then unable to recalled them to complete the job.

Even though a report ( The Accra Sewerage Improvement Project) was delivered in 1996 recommending improvement to the networks due to the increasing level of diffuse pollution from septic system , 10 years later it is still just a plan. If we needed it in the 1970's; how much more now? Hence leaving this topical area of grave concern unfinished up till now is criminal. Just as we are blind to the sewers, so also to the need for public toilets.

The whole system is a disaster. Yet Ghana is now 51 and dying to promote the tourist industry.

Ghana must learn from these hard lessons and move on with the current trends, not expect the tourists or guests to come to Ghana and enjoy such filth. When it comes to sanitation issues it makes Ghanaians rather uncomfortable as it means we have a lot of explaining to do to justify why there is “the neglect.” Ghanaians must feel free to introduce people around their country just the same way one feels when one introduces guests into ones' home.
The A.M.A must have a daily routine cleaning mechanisms in place and not an adhoc one as we currently do. However, do not think that solving the sanitation problem is going to be easy…

Malaysia is often set as an example to us of what we should have achieved in the last 50 years. But they also are embarrassed about its public toilet systems. A publication in News Track - Quirks, Feb. 9, 2007 at 11:33 AM highlights this “Toilets in Malaysia an embarrassment “

The Malaysia Government however, is dealing with the issue head on by planning to introduce college courses in lavatory management in an effort to improve the awful state of the country's toilets. The courses are part of a continuing "toilet revolution" in the Southeast Asian nation known for its pristine tropical beaches and modern skyscrapers, But unfortunately, public toilets in Malaysia are a turn-off for overseas tourists who find them dirty and disgusting. They also lack toilet paper and soap for washing hands. To improve the condition of its loos, Malaysia is instituting a text message hotline so substandard lavatories can be reported to authorities.

"Good, clean toilets are associated with good health, good manners, good upbringing, good housekeeping and civilisation," says Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. "That is why the government feels this must be a national effort.

Let us briefly look at the history of sanitation.

Research shows that, the idea of public toilets dates back thousands of years.

The Romans developed public health, as they believed that cleanliness would lead to good health. The Romans made links between causes of disease and methods of prevention. As a consequence they developed a large system of Public Health works around their empire.
The Romans believed that Prevention of illness was more important than cure of illness. Roman Philosophy was based along the lines of searching for a reason then establishing a preventative measure to minimise the risk attached.

Such empirical observations led the Romans to believe that ill health could be associated with, amongst other things, bad air, bad water, swamps, sewage, debris and lack of personal cleanliness. In some places, Rome included; it is impossible to avoid all of these unless something is physically done to alter the environment.

The Romans, being technologically adequate, resolved to provide clean water through aqueducts, to remove the bulk of sewage through the building of sewers and to develop a system of public toilets throughout their towns and city's. Personal hygiene was encouraged through the building of large public baths (The roman baths in the City of Bath being an obvious example of these).

The consequence of this pragmatic approach to preventative measures was an advanced system of public health structures, many of which are still visible in places today. In Some Roman ruins toilets can still be seen today – these consisted of rows of holes in planks or stone which people could sit on, with a direct drop into running water below to remove the effluent. This level of hygiene was not seen again until the late 19th century!

No advances appeared until the 19th Century, in fact hygiene had mainly gone backwards.

However, large conurbations produce such large volumes of effluent that thinking needs to go beyond just providing a basic open sewer. The 'great stinks' showed this in London and Paris, but similar problems exist in many cities today.

Research shows that Britian in the 19th century had a major problem with sewerage resulting in the great stink in London. In 1858, the river or the 'Great Stink' as it was often called was so bad that the sittings at the House of Commons had to be abandoned. It transpires that by the middle of 19th Century, the rise in sewage carried into the Thames had killed off all the fish and most other aquatic life.

Prof, Martin Daunton's article on The London's great stink and Victorian urban planning reported that cholera epidemics, the 'Great Stink' and miasmas (foul smelling air) combined to create a death rate in Britain's cities higher than at any time since the Black Death. The Government was forced to face up to the need for an urban planning policy focusing on sanitation.

It is said that the work connected with laundries surpassed prostitution in Victorian London and all this waste and toxic water passed into the river. In mid-19th century London, out of the 70,000 houses in the city, 17,000 had their own wells, while the rest relied on standpipes- one for every 20 to 30 houses- which supplied water for one hour only, three days a week. Few houses had bathrooms and even when Queen Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace, she found no bathrooms.

Indeed, as late as 1908, Downing Street had no bathrooms. Public bathhouses were popular. A series of cholera outbreaks in the 1840s and 1850s paved the way for a system of sewers built with the main outfall at Becton and Crossness, downstream of London and leading to a dramatic drop in death rates (from 130 down to 37 per 1000). In Ghana we also had our public bath houses around the capital in the 1950's.

According to research, Paris in the Summer of 1880, was also in the grip of a "Great Stink". Reports of foul, stomach turning odours were all over in the newspapers on a daily basis, and public fear and outrage grew as the stink engulfed the city.
So we see that sanitation only gets attention when it gets out of hand. Unfortunately, as soon as improvements are made, concern drops and political expediency leads to cuts – as Busia's program did. Ghana is not alone as many developed countries also went through difficult periods on the subject of sewerage and public health. An article written by Sally Sheard – (Profit is a Dirty Word: The Development of Public Baths and Wash-houses in Britain 1847–1915), demonstrated how the introduction of public baths and washhouses in Liverpool, Belfast, and Glasgow was initially a direct response to sanitary reform campaigns. She further reported that the explicit public health ideology of these developments was constantly compromised by implicit concerns about municipal finance and the potential profit that such enterprises could generate.

You would think the British would have learnt from the 'Great Stink'. But, by the 1950's, due to lack of investment, increased industrial discharges, bomb damage to sewers during the Second World War and widespread use of non-biodegradable detergents had produced a River that was virtually dead. Water quality was so poor that during summer months large stretches of the River were devoid of any oxygen with the result that there was no established population of fish between Fulham and Tilbury. Following a report prepared for the Thames Survey Committee in 1961 by the Pollution Research Board, improvements were started which gradually improved water quality so that fish were able to recolonise the river.

So we see that Britain has also struggled with dealing with sewage. And unfortunately, the more houses with better sanitation, the more sewage you get!

It may surprise people to know that a bath and indoor toilet have only recently become standard in Britain. Research shows that in the early 1970's, much of the housing provision in Northern Ireland was inadequate. In 1971, only 63 percent of Catholic homes and 72 percent of Protestant homes in Northern Ireland had hot water, a fixed bath or shower, and an inside WC. This gap has however only been eradicated over the past 25 years, with almost all homes in Northern Ireland (98 percent), being furnished with these facilities.

So we must realise that sanitation and Public health in Ghana will not be solved easily, it is an ongoing project. It is about time everyone takes the initiative to make a difference. If locals take initiatives and start up projects of this nature other organisation would assist.

Part 2

Sanitation – a myth or a reality in Ghana?

We need to consider sanitation at 3 levels: The toilet, sewers and sewage treatment.

Sanitation at the toilet level

We need public toilets. We do not want people in the towns using the roadside, a stream or your backgarden to do their business. Ok, we cannot force people to install suitable sanitation in their homes, but we should at least in public have our basic needs cared for. Our lovely sandy sparkling sea sides, a money generating venue in many developed countries, in certain areas are used as a means of toilet. This really highlights the lack of toilet facilities around these areas. The irony is that the locals are waiting for the Government to be responsibilities for social welfare of these issues. In reailty, nothing will happen unless the local community use collective monies to build public toilets for their communities or individuals also offer to build as a token of love. Local communties must think of their own community development and improvement to shame the government, and then maybe we can get help from them. We do not need luxury, just cleanliness, limited smells and somewhere to wash your hands.

Finally, we need to think outside the box. Water is not always plentiful, so we need to consider alternatives to flushing toilets. There are modern designs for composting toilets, which are clean and relatively smell free. They have the advantage of no sewers needed, and free fertilizer for agriculture. They would be ideal for the smaller community.


Supose we have toilets, both Private and Public. However, where does the sewage go? Down the centre of the street? Into a ditch? What's the point of having a toilet if we empty it into the environment where we would like to go and enjoy. We must have cess pits (small scale needs) and underground sewers to carry the waste away. Or the composting toilet. At last we can have a clean environment to live in.

Sewage treatment

Villages may be able to get away with a simple sewage system but larger towns and cities need a proper sewage treatment.

It was through the planning of the solutions to solve the 'Great Stink' in London that further precautions, like the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea embankments were built to speed the river and get rid of the putrid mud. This is the period that The Victorians further built under London with the Underground railway and more sewers. By the end of the Nineteenth century, London was the largest city in history and physically very much what we know today. The building of the embankments and the Beckon sewers improved the quality of the water.

However, during the 20th century, it gradually deteriorated again and by the 1950s, it was little more than an open sewer, containing no oxygen. The production of hydrogen sulphide gave off the smell of rotten eggs. The problem was further aggravated by fluctuating tides as it can take up to 80 days for water to be flushed out to the sea in periods of low rainfall.

Three criteria for improvement were established. Firstly, that the water must sustain fish at all stages of tides. Secondly, it must support fauna on the mud bottom and thirdly, all toxic and non-biodegradable waste must be excluded from the river. In 1964, work on greatly enlarged sewage works was started and completed in 1974. The results have been spectacular with the stretches of river up to 30 miles devoid of fish from 1920 to 1964 now supporting aquatic life. It attracts more than 10,000 birds during wintering times. Salmon, trout and even seals have been found in the river.

So we can see that no polluted river is hopeless, given the will to act. Lets look at China.

In China, water pollution has long been a problem, and it's recent industrial boom has caused far more, trying even the chinese peoples legendary patience. Sewage treatment in cities has developed rapidly in recent years, playing an important role in boosting urban water quality. By the end of 2004 they had built 708 treatment plants built in 661 cities, with a combined capacity of 49 million cubic meters per day, twice the capacity in 2000. The annual amount treated is 16.3 billion cubic meters, up 43 percent from 2000. In total, 45.7 percent of all sewage in China is now treated.

All the Chinese cities must have operating sewage treatment plants by 2010, with 70 percent of urban sewage treated before being discharged into the environment, the Deputy Minister of construction Qiu Baoxing has said.

However, the country's water pollution situation is still grave, as 278 cities have yet to build their sewage plants, while many plants are running at lower-than-designed capacities. Some are not even running at all.

To ensure the attainment of the goals, the Deputy Minister said that municipal authorities must include water pollution control into their urban planning.
The lack of proper sewage collecting networks is partly to blame for the under-utilization of the sewage treatment capacity.

If the rigidly controlled Chinese government realises that sewage treatment is a critical priority, if a little late in the day, we should take notice. Rather than repair the damage later, let us deal with it as it arises.

Villages may need minimal treatment for there waste water, but in cities and towns we have to think further. It is not fair to dump our waste into rivers, lakes or the sea in quantities that will pollute these environments – others will suffer from our selfish acts. Hence, we need to consider treating sewage. It does not have to be first world, top class technology – in fact in tropical environments simple solutions work more efficiently than in cold climates, which means that a simple, low technology solution can often provide adequate standards. If we ignore this 'out of sight, out of mind' infrastructure, we will slowly degrade our aquatic environment and produce our own 'Great Stink'. Let's learn from the lessons of the past, not repeat them.

Similarly, I don't think any Ghanaian would be proud of certain areas in our society at this present age. For example, Sodom and Gomorrah. The entire sanitation system in Ghana may need to be re-considered with a strategic focus. Up till now locals people living in our rural areas still use the bush as their means for toilet. We are not talking of camping practices in Ghana but every day way of living. This is rather unacceptable in modern times.

Problems in Africa

While the developed countries have improved their sanitiation, we should remember that this is still a recent improvement. In Africa, we are still developing, and as they say, 'Rome was not built in a Day'. The challenges are great, but we need to tackle problems in manageable steps. Better planning would help. We know that informal settlement's will appear, causing environment issues which is coupled with more multiple disadvantages. This include inadequate infrastructure and services, and vulnerability to environmental shocks. As we ignore sanitiation and the congestion in urban environments increases such areas becomes at risk ridden with pollution, sewage and crime. Such places experience problems with water, precarious shelter, poor sanitation and dangerous electrical connections. The poor communities build improper shelter out of the material they collect from around their place, which lack infrastructure and services provided for the better off. What we do need is to set aside the land at an early stage for the services we need ina settlement, so we can build later when it can be afforded. Without this, we end up bulldozing indiscriminately when the time comes, increasing hardship and cost.

On the other hand, in Ghana some people are content showing off and have unnecessary expensive funerals. It would be worth us considering a more appropriate way of having a simple funeral and thus leaving a legacy for the deceased in a form of the memory . This could be in the form of building a bus stop, providing benches for parks with an inscriptions like “ In the lovely memory of Mrs XX from the Cassava family, La, Accra.” This example would encourage the general public to stop, sit and relax and even appreciate nature while thinking of the deceased person. Others could build even public toilets for the village, in which they come from.

Ghana must learn pretty quick from all these sources shared so far. Currently, we are still behind when it comes to the improvements of a proper sanitation system. Showing of is what many aspire to. God loves cleanliness.

The way forward

It would be worth paying the cleaners good wages with tips if they keep their geographical patch clean and work 24/7 in order to have a pride in their jobs. After all cleaning in an acceptable job in the developed countries. I'm sure many that have enjoyed this area of job while looking for other jobs would relate to this.

MP's, Assemblymen and women, chiefs market leaders and the general public may need to be more vocal and assertive to demand their right to having these basic amenities from the Government and others. TWe also need to judge our representatives and hold them to account if they fail to provide them with these basic amenities; i.e. public toilets in facilities. Cities, towns and villages must all have the same standard of public toilet systems as public toilets ideology started long ago.

Communities' members may need to rethink as to who to vote for during election, as communities must seek outcomes of MP's in office and not just talk talk. With no delivery of basic service improvements.

International and local businesses may need to ensure that, the community in which they operate to get their bread and butter have basic amenities such as public toilets, learning resource centres. This is not an optional is it a necessity and should be part of the social responsibility ethos. Perhaps these areas need to be legislated for it to be compulsory before any trade agreement is signed.

Well, China and Malaysia have recognised and acknowledge the health hazards in their countries and consequently are seriously putting sewerage treatment in most of their cities. As
a result the business is booming and the public is beginning to enjoy a better improvement to their environment. Ghanaians are fed up seeing “Sodom and Gomorrah “ type townships springing up in certain areas throughout Ghana. These eye sores do not sell Ghana well at all.

Ghanaians these days are international and have enjoyed the impact of excellent sanitation measures in other countries. Sadly, when one return home to Ghana the situation is a different one. We are still heavily dependant of the septic tanks for our waste disposal – fine for isolated houses and villages, but not urban areas.

Waste disposal and sanitation should be for all, regardless. Give even the poor a decent environment, and they will help look after it.

I would suggest the following :

Minor offenders should serve the communities through communal labour instead of imprisonments.

Local churches should encourage their congregation to devote half a Sunday to tidy up around the community (litter picking, unblocking drains, emptying of rubbish bins, cleaning up human and animal waste in public areas) where they worship instead of praying 24/7 in filthy environments. After all is not cleanliness next to Godliness?

Chiefs and Queen mothers have be given the power to inspect their community once a week , encourage the creation of a routine cleaning rota for its inhabitants and just not leave everything to the Government.

Small sums of money can be paid to those who participate regularly (how about a church collection for this). Therefore there is an incentive and the unemployed have an option to make a little money – surely a good thing.

The MTTU and Bookmen must enforce cleanliness around all stations. The Ghana
Police Service, Health and Social service must all work enforce a law on cleanliness in every city, town and village.

Heavily charges could be introduced to shame community living in filty conditions.

Minimum santiation expectations needs to be explained as a guidelines for each community.

Cleanliness must be every community's repsonisibility and they need to take that ownership and take the credit for doing just that.
Thus the Governemnt then rewardfs those communities with purposeful basic amenties to enable community to develop in other areas.

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