Dispatches from a field trip to study water systems in West Africa
Sarah Lynn Cunningham works for the Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District in Kentucky, implementing the principles of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES). This week, she’s doing reconnaissance in Tamale, Ghana, to assess ways to improve water and waste management.
Tuesday, 16 Mar 2004
My colleague Steve Hubbs, an environmental engineer recently retired from the Louisville Water Company, and I are working this week in Tamale, Ghana.
Tamale and our hometown of Louisville, Ky., are sister cities. In fact, this relationship is 25 years old this year.
Access to clean drinking water is a big problem for most folks in Tamale. Improving their access would significantly benefit public health and their day-to-day quality of life.
One decade ago, on behalf of my employer, the Metropolitan Sewer District, I hosted a delegation from Tamale visiting Louisville to celebrate the 15th anniversary of our sister-city relationship. I’ve wanted to get here ever since.
The opportunity came after Louisville and Tamale were chosen to pilot a new World Bank program called Millennium Development Goals. The MDG goals we mutually chose to address are drinking water, wastewater treatment, and solid-waste management.
Having worked in other countries and cultures before, Steve and I know that although we can (and do) host visitors from overseas, we can’t really engage beyond the surface without visiting them. We have also consistently found that our colleagues in the other countries we’ve visited are sharp and well-informed. So, this sort of reconnaissance visit also allows us to begin to develop working relationships with our peers.
Perhaps the biggest engineering design challenge here is the disparate weather patterns: During the two rainy seasons, they have too much water; during the dry season, there’s essentially no rain. As city leaders and NGOs try to provide more water, both are turning increasingly to groundwater supplies. Still, they acknowledge that the water tables have been dropping and will likely continue to do so.
Yesterday, we began by meeting the city manager and his departmental heads and deputies for water, wastewater, solid-waste management, environmental health, and public health. They took turns giving us overviews of the programs they run, their challenges, current projects, etc.
This sort of work illustrates how everything is interrelated. Without a proper place to dispose of wastewater from the toilet, kitchen, and laundry, otherwise good sources of drinking water can be contaminated. That contamination spreads disease. Similarly, improper management of solid waste (household trash or rubbish) often harms water quality.
After listening, we requested which projects we wanted to see in the field. Yesterday afternoon, we began those field visits. (One of the best things about our field is that it’s straightforward. We can quickly see — and smell — what’s happening — or not!)
One of the health challenges facing this part of the world is Guinea worm, a waterborne disease that results in painful boils from which worms, sometimes a meter or more long, erupt!
First we visited a reservoir, in a relatively rural area outside of town, persistently contaminated with Guinea worm. The local government has been installing a filtration system, which they hope will remove that parasite. We’re not sure that the filter will work and they didn’t seem 100 percent sure either, but we all agreed that testing the filtered water would determine whether or not they were successful.
We next went to a nearby solar-powered well, installed by an NGO called New Energy. Solar cells send electricity to batteries buried in a small concrete vault. Once per day, the pumps pull water from the 10-meter-deep well, up into an above-ground plastic tank about 3 meters off the ground. For certain hours each day, two spigots are unlocked and residents may pay to fill their water containers. We were impressed with the efficiency of the system.
The next stop was a similarly designed water well in a fairly densely populated neighborhood, though it was powered from the grid. It was next to a major drainage ditch, which was being lined with vertical concrete walls and bottom (something progressive American engineers see as an ecological no-no). The water flowing through its dry-weather channel was rather contaminated with raw sewage, as were many other portions of the stormwater system we’ve encountered.
That’s all for today, as we will soon be picked up for dinner. More tomorrow.