Saturday, June 09, 2007

On Water

Here are some pictures of rain – that elusive, destructive, life-giving bundle of hydrogen and oxygen. The south of Ghana has had some serious flooding recently – at least 7 people in Accra died due to it. But the North is now in full bloom, with corn stalks shooting from the ground and trees glowing a vibrant green, providing food and giving life. Rain here can destroy or it can build life – it’s unfortunate that its life-building capacity isn’t more evenly distributed across the year.

I read an interesting article recently claiming that the water needs of every person in the entire continent of Africa could be met if only rain could be fully utilized – that’s how much falls from the sky.

Looking outside during a thunderstorm here, it’s not hard to believe. The rain is an incredible thing here. Drizzles are almost unheard of. The weather is binary here: either there’s not a drop of water, or else there’s a deluge, a painful, violent downpour that crashes to the ground and forces its way like a herd of bulls downhill through the streets.

Northern Ghana gets 950mm/year of rain. Compare that to Toronto, which sees 819mm/year. It’s not a paucity of water that’s affecting Ghana – it’s the distribution. This water all comes to the country over a period of roughly 4 months. The rest of the year, there’s scarcely a drop to bring life from the ground.

So if the water in northern Ghana’s one rainy season could be harvested, stored for use throughout the year, it could solve the people’s water problems.

But, like many development solutions, what sounds like a simple idea has complex implications.

Some of the problems I’ve heard are:
1) Infrastructure cost. It costs money to dig huge pits, line them with concrete and cover them, as well as installation of troughs and piping for rain water harvesting. Generally systems make use of tin roofing to channel the water to the trough – but tin roofing, in the poorest of communities, is also scarce or non-existent (thatch roofing is much more common).
2) Even if the above are all in place, the water still can’t be considered potable without some kind of filtration device – although it could still be used for agriculture and washing. But potable quality means additional money, and (often complicated and costly) maintenance.
3) Communities are most likely to make use of water that is easily accessible. If rain water is being harvested in the rainy season, the community will likely use that instead of having to walk to a distant source. Wouldn’t you do the same, too? But the problem is that the stored water disappears instead of being saved for later (for dry-season farming, for instance), and when the dry season comes, the community members -- generally women and children -- have to make the trek to that distant source.

I hate to present only the problems, at the risk of painting an overly-negative picture of Ghana’s water problems. So let me say that, on the plus side, there’s still a big donor interest in groundwater. For instance, NORWASP (a Canadian-funded water and sanitation project) was supposed to wrap up last year, but had leftover money. They’re now using this money to rehabilitate over 500 old boreholes, which draw water from the earth.

That, coupled with a comprehensive hygiene programme and the formation of community-level groups to maintain the pumps, can mean a huge increase in the community’s health. And this is a solution that’s not dependent on a source as fickle as the rain.


In other news, I’ll be out of contact for the next week, as I’ll be heading up to the Upper East for a village stay. I haven’t done one since coming back in February, so it’s high time I reconnect with rural Ghana.


ashley.raeside said...

Hey Luke,

REally liking your posts! So thanks for sharing them!

Confirmed with NO this week that I'm going to do an LTOV in jan/feb (!) ... not sure what country yet. You'll probably be back from tour2 by then? Are you thinking of a 3rd - or in-Canada plans?

The extra NORWASP $ things sounds great - can't find any info on them except through the CIDA site -I take it they're a local org in N. Ghana? One thing on the CIDA site they mentioned was that funding has led to 200,000 ppl with access to water and 7,600 latrines. I was wondering what you think of the obvious emphasis on boreholes vs. latrines? I know this pattern isn't just for NORWASP, but for WatSan funding generally....WHO reports say improved sanitation and hygiene lower diarrhoea, etc deaths way more than improved water sources ( What do your observations on the ground tell you compared to the 'official' WHO report? Is water actually more important, or is there just more 'consumer' (dorothy) demand for water vs. sanitation/hygiene?

Sorry to bombard you with questions!! We can chat another time/way if it's more convenient for you!

Take care not to 'knock' anymore precarious bike riders to the ground!

Ashley (Windsor)

Anonymous said...


Hey, this is Tricia from the Univesrity of Manitoba chapter; I was linked to your blog by one of my current JFs, Laura.

This post certainly sparked my interest! I am fascinated by water issues on the global level, and was excited to learn about the realities in Ghana. Thanks also, for linking me to an article that I will be reading right away.

I'll definitely be keeping up with your blog when you return.


P.S. You're a phenomenal writer. I love your similes and careful attention to word detail...

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