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50th Independence Anniversary Bash in Filth

As Ghana prepares to celebrate its 50th Independence anniversary next year, Politicians may do well to remember that not a single of the nation’s cities is close to getting a clean bill of health.

Ghanaians wander around many of Ghana’s cities drinking water out of plastic bags (‘sachets’), which are sold by informal vendors who have solved a problem created by a scarcity of clean drinking water.

Yet these bags have become a symbol of two of Ghana’s most pressing issues: a lack of clean drinking water and mountains of waste found throughout many of its biggest cities.

I recently saw a screaming headline of the state’s daily newspaper “Accra engulfed in filth”. Of course, all cities create waste – but poor cities generally have a more noticeable waste problem than their wealthy counterparts, which have generally relied on the private sector to effectively deal with waste of all kinds.

Government aid programmes in the developing world have lavished aid money on nebulous poverty reduction schemes, while forgetting the treacherous filth which exacerbates the conditions in which poor people live. Local government, plagued by corruption, cronyism and nepotism, has not proved much better at solving the real problems of Ghana’s people. As a continent, our bureaucrats squander, steal or as Nigerian President likes to put it, Africa loses $149 billion annually to corruption. That translates into US $4700 every second. Yet many do-gooder NGOs and self-delusory elements who have perfected the art of hoodwinking and hijacking development from poor Africans shout to the roof tops that an African child dies of hunger, malnutrition and disease (which is caused by filth) every three seconds.

But as the road to failure is paved with good intentions, so is the misplaced notion that the recent U.S. Millennium Challenge Account grant of $547m given to Ghana is the kind of bail outs that a resource –rich country needs to grow economically. Already the government’s capitation grant for feeding school children is being abused by directorates of education and stands a better chance of failing as many schools lack books. Better still, the Ghanaian government has earmarked US$20 million toward next year’s Independence anniversary celebrations. Government propagandists jumping from one radio station to another have failed to justify the expense. None of the plans to spend such hefty amount includes covering the few sewers and gutters in Accra at least. The potential cash cow will help fund illusory contracts with kick backs and buy gold-plated Mercedes to ferry our rich guests around on Independence Day.

Seems like the government likes to toast failure. When Ghana reached the decision point of HIPC two years ago, a state banquet was held to pontificate the poverty of a people whose per capita income today is less than US$500 when her same year Independent friends, South Korea and Malaysia earn more than fifteen times today.

Today, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly is charged with managing Accra’s waste – and it has manifestly lost control over the waste situation. Occasionally, the Assembly runs crotchety campaigns to rid the city of waste, which provide a temporary bandage to the problem. Some politicians, such as Kwadwo Adjei-Darko, former Minister for Local Government and Rural Development, have suggested that without a government-sponsored recycling campaign, the alternative as an Accra daily newspaper puts it “is to completely ban the production and importation of plastics, which would be a very painful action considering the plight of industry and employment.” Another funny suggestion from the Regional Minister of Accra is that loads of sanitary inspectors would be employed to fill Accra, guarding inhabitants to prevent them littering the city.

Not even Accra’s wealthiest residents can escape the waste problem – they, like the rest of the country, live with stagnant, stinking open sewers which are filled with untreated raw sewage, and litter — plastic sachets, household refuse. When clouds overhead pour down with rain, these clogged gutters cannot handle the water, so the waste flows over the streets, into shops and homes. On a hot day, the stench is nauseating.

These open sewers provide an ideal environment for parasites to breed, especially those which cause typhoid, malaria, cholera, dysentery and diarrhea. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes, for instance, have become a daily menace. We battle them with insecticide-treated bed nets and by burning mosquito repellent coils (whose cacophonous adverts are certain to have incensed the insects) – the strategy advocated by the World Health Organisation and Ghana’s government ministers.

These are the leading diseases reported in our major health institutions today. Largely, they result from our defective water systems. For instance, a World Health Organization (WHO) study conducted last year in Accra revealed that there was a direct relationship between chlorine levels in our drinking water, and the presence of faecal material. At locations which were further away from the main waterworks in Accra West, chlorine levels dropped, and faecal material increased.

Similarly, a WHO publication in 2000 says 75 % of all diseases in developing countries arose from polluted drinking water. That same year, UNICEF said that the consumption of unsafe water contributes to about 2.2 million deaths annually.

Local governments have been nauseatingly tardy at ensuring effective, clean urban water delivery, and waste collection, in Ghana. Today, delivery is dominated by a shady public-private arrangement that simply offers a potential cash cow to bureaucrats and their crony ‘private’ operators. As a result, only a small percentage of the population has piped water and a functioning sewer system.

A parallel situation to water exists with solid waste disposal. In the current system, about 80% of people do not have to pay for waste collection. And because these people do not pay, their waste is hardly ever collected, and they have no incentive to properly dispose of it.

In Accra’s poorest areas, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly has placed a scanty few “Central Container Systems” where residents can deposit their household waste. Frequently, however, the containers are unused, and the waste finds its way into the gutter, or it is burned or buried.

Many of these poor areas notably ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ are considered ‘illegal’ settlements by local governments. By not providing services such as waste disposal and water delivery, local governments are able to deny the legal right of such communities to exist.

On public streets, people tend to throw their litter on the street – an absence of rubbish bins combined with already overflowing open sewers means that their marginal contribution to the problem is small.

Yet the solution to our water and waste problems lies not in banning waste, fining those who litter, or government campaigns against waste. We can only heal this wound by empowering the private sector – rather than relying on botched attempts by government to bandage it.

First, we must incentivise private entrepreneurs to engage in the market for waste – both human waste (in the form of sewage) and solid waste – and the market for water delivery. The UN World Development Report ‘Water for People, Water for Life’ shows that the amount of disease and lost man hours due to unclean water is vastly greater than the cost of improving water systems. The report in fact, claims every dollar spent on improving water delivery and sanitation would bring US$34 of benefit.

Such a system could be encouraged with an open, competitive tender for water delivery and treatment services, and waste collection services. Competition amongst numerous entrepreneurs is the surest way to lead to affordable, reliable services. With commercialization of water and waste services, the local government would be forced to compete – rather than continuing to provide shoddy service to a small portion of Accra’s population.

By creating an open tender process for water delivery, disposal of solid waste and recycling where it is economically viable, we would enable entrepreneurs to deal with our waste problems in an innovative and cost effective manner. Such competition over provision of services would benefit consumers directly and indirectly. They would benefit directly – by paying for water delivery, sewage systems and their own waste — and indirectly, because they would spend less on healthcare to treat preventable diseases, leading to increased savings and generally creating wealth. The local government could use its resources to address other problems more fruitfully.

Second, we must fight reckless waste disposal by ensuring that people pay for their waste, and feel responsible for it. Litter is indeed a blight to our city – but litter is largely the result of cultural attitudes towards waste. Government currently cannot deal with household waste, much less litter on the street. If water and waste services became part of our everyday existence, surely we would accept less of it on our streets.

Opposition to this proposal might come from a camp which claims that private enterprise only helps the wealthy, and that the poor cannot pay for services. Today, many ordinary Ghanaians are informal entrepreneurs – they eke a meager living by providing goods and services to their fellow Ghanaians

Individual households today spend up to one-third of their hard-earned wages on cures for those preventable diseases caused by poor sanitation and lack of clean water. Likewise, many poor people today spend a fortune on procuring water to attempt to avoid the diseases. It is said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: to say that the poor won’t pay for services fundamentally underestimates the financial savvy of those people.



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