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

TAMALE, Ghana.

My colleague Steve Hubbs, an environmental engineer recently retired from the Louisville Water Company, and I are working this week in Tamale, Ghana.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Wednesday, 17 Mar 2004

TAMALE, Ghana.

My colleague, Steve Hubbs, and I are being escorted by Susan Herlin, Ph.D., a history professor, retired from the University of Louisville. She first visited Ghana 44 years ago, fell in love with the place, and eventually was made a chief. Taking her role very seriously, she has built a palace in Tamale. It’s called Zo-Simli-Naa (Dagbani for friendship and love, or simply peace).

On day two, our chief needed to pay her respects to a couple of other chiefs, and we got to come along, before getting on with our professional appointments. It was the sort of thing a regular tourist would never see. There’s more protocol and ritual to such visits than we could absorb, but, suffice it to say, it was a fascinating honor.

The first chief was in a wheelchair in the receiving house of his compound. Our conversation began with the universal discussion of how hot the weather had been, from which that chief noted all the reasons why he prefers T-shirts to more traditional garb. The fellow was up in years, but sharp as a tack and very engaging.

The second chief received us in a pavilion within his compound. We were given the gift of a cola nut, something I’d never seen before. They’re oblong and average about 1.25 inches long, about 1 inch around. The shell is hard, orange-red with black mottling. Our chief said we’d get quite a caffeine buzz if we “chewed” them. I gave mine away to one of our Ghanaian hosts, a home economics teacher, since she seemed to value them more than I could.

The city of Tamale’s director of sanitation and two of his staff took us on the following two site visits:

The VIP Toilets: Our American euphemism “the necessary room” takes on a whole new meaning as we see so many people living in tiny one-room houses sans plumbing. Seeing children and sometimes adults relieving themselves while facing a wall is not uncommon as we drive down the road; they’ve no other choice. This time of year, with the drought so severe, the urine quickly evaporates, but the poop is a threat to public health.

The government has constructed dozens of “convenience centers,” as has the private sector. The preferred design is what they call “ventilated improved privy,” or, entertainingly, “VIP toilets.” Our first visit was to one of them. It was within its own masonry wall or compound. There was a 20-holer for women and another for men. Urinating is free and defecating costs 200 Ghanaian cedis (equal to 2.2 cents, but the average Ghanaian lucky enough to have a job earns about $1 U.S. per day).

The 40 toilets are “squat plates,” meaning the user squats over a hole. The squat plates I’ve seen in Asia are over a horizontal pipe and invariably cease to flow after being clogged with toilet paper and, well, solids. These holes are over short vertical pipes that drop into a large holding tank below. Because those pipes drop below the surface of the holdings and because there are pipes above the holding tank, venting to the atmosphere, the inevitable buildup of methane gas coming off the septic holdings is not wafting up to where folks are squatting. A quick stroll through the women’s room confirmed the design was working. The smell was noticeably less noxious than the typical pit latrine.

Steve said he was reminded why he went into the drinking-water field rather than the wastewater field.

The New Landfill: We next drove about 10 miles to Tamale’s new landfill, constructed by Chinese contractors and opened in July 2003. The soil everywhere here looks like what we call Georgia red clay. They say they chose this remote site because its soil has a particularly high clay content.

My first observation was the complete lack of “pickers.” I’ve become accustomed to seeing people picking through what has been freshly dumped atop the heap for salvageable or recyclable materials, even in Italy, but not here in Tamale. I asked why, and was told the obvious: It’s dangerous and the government wants to discourage it. Our guides pointed out the tall fencing around the entire site to keep people (and the persistent goats) out.

Predictably, there was not much odor. All landfills smell of the same “garbage juice,” but there’s a correlation between affluence and odor. Poorer nations don’t waste food like rich nations do. There’s no such thing as food waste; at minimum, the goats will eat whatever the people don’t.

Curiously, I did see a few metal and aluminium cans, because they’ve essentially no recycling industry, much less anything like curbside collection programs here. The rubbish did contain lots of lightweight (LDPE) plastic shopping bags, as does nearly the entire landscape. You can’t look anywhere and not see them, blowing and accumulating against anything that will trap them. Even the Ghanaian president was complaining about them on national TV last week!

We were told that leachate and methane collection systems had been installed. (Rotting garbage generates “garbage juice” that drains downward and methane gas that rises up. Both can cause environmental problems and the latter can go boom!)

Initially, I couldn’t imagine that this landfill ever generated leachate, but our guides reminded me that its contents get a thorough soaking in the rainy season. (There’s that design challenge presented by the disparate weather again.) A network of perforated flexible pipes collects the leachate during the rainy seasons and delivers it to a series of lagoons.

We were told that the septage pumped from the public toilets is also dumped into the first and largest of those lagoons. (We sometimes use the same approach in the U.S., but it only works when the loading rate is very low, meaning when the wastewater is a rather small fraction of the total volume.) Because the lagoon looked and smelled so devoid of wastewater, I asked about the loading rates. They couldn’t tell us the volume of the lagoon, but said they haul and dump 28 truckloads of wastewater per week, at 3,000 gallons per load, from public-toilet and individual-home holding tanks.

(No one in Tamale has a piped connection to a wastewater treatment plant. If they have plumbing, we’ve learned, they either send it to a leach field out back or into a holding tank, the latter of which is periodically pumped out by the local government at a cost of 150,000 cedis, or nearly $17.)

I walked over to the concrete splash-block-style chutes, on which the trucks supposedly dump their loads; it showed some sign of once having something wet and organic dumped on it, but not in a while. I opened the tap of the wash-down spigot, which lacked a hose, but no water came out.

This situation is one that comes up frequently during this sort of work: The folks we’re dealing with seem earnest enough, but what they’re telling us just doesn’t add up. We don’t know if my questions are embarrassing them and they’re trying to deflect them by telling us made-up answers, if something is being lost in translation and the questions don’t make sense (even if we are all speaking English), or what. Worse, we don’t know if we should confront them by asking another way or hang loose and either think about it some more in hopes of figuring it out ourselves or ask for clarification or rectification on the spot. I tend to err in favor of hanging loose, on the chance that we two can make sense of it later or find a third party who can do so for us.

Upon further discussion of this particular question, however, Steve and I could not reconcile what we were told with what we saw and decided that we’ll ask again later this week. I volunteered to do so, because women can better get away with acting confused, restating what we were told, and then admitting to not understanding.

After a bit of Q&A at the office of the sanitation director, Steve and I ate lunch at a local restaurant and tried to walk back to our host’s palace. We found the markets that seem to line all roads intriguing. At one point, a boy named Mugiz came up and initiated a conversation. He offered to take us to the craft market, where we might find interesting souvenirs. We hesitated a bit when he led us down an alley, but decided he was cool and went. Sure enough, there were several stalls selling paintings, leather boots, cushions, sandals, purses, wooden sculptures, mankala games, beaded necklaces, etc. We didn’t have enough cedis on us to buy much, but made a note to return.

As we were about to leave the craft market, another boy named Amin road up on his bicycle and asked if we knew Mr. Tom. We said we weren’t sure who he meant. He said he was a professor in Louisville who had been to Tamale earlier this year and told him that water experts would soon be visiting. We then realized that he was referring to Professor Tom Thsyvertsen, a very active member of our sister-city committee at home. It is indeed a very small world.

When we got out to the main street, we weren’t entirely sure which way to go. But the boys knew! They knew that we belonged at Zo-Simli palace, our chief’s name, and which way to go. They walked us all the way back, perhaps a mile. We brought them into the receiving room of the palace. Steve, a volunteer soccer coach, gave each of them a pair of used soccer shoes donated by his team, and I gave them school supplies.

An example of how we can always learn something we can do better from other countries: They have fairly wide, smooth bike and pedestrian lanes along both sides of their major roads, separated — and protected — from automotive traffic by curbs.

Thursday, 18 Mar 2004

TAMALE, Ghana.

I was drafted to attend a seminar today (which, despite how it had been described to us, had essentially nothing to do with our work). My colleague Steve Hubbs, who got to keep our field appointments, is filing the following report for March 18:

Today’s activities focused on two projects: the Tamale Water Supply, constructed by the Ghana Water Company in the 1970s, and a dam and irrigation project, funded by the British in the 1980s. The trip to the river and raw-water pumping facility took 90 minutes on a rough dirt road through the central African Savannah region. It’s flat, rolling land, with sparse trees and bush and an occasional massive Baobob tree. The road was more travelled by foot than by vehicle, with local inhabitants moving between villages, schools, and farming/fishing areas.

The water supply is the White Volta River, a wide river similar in size and form to the Missouri River in the U.S. The intake structure is similar to U.S. facilities, protected against flooding and fitted with redundant pumps for reliability. The capacity of the system, however, is much smaller than for typical U.S. cities. The Tamale facility pumps 4 million gallons per day for a population of about 450,000; a typical U.S. city would require over 10 times that rate. Water is very scarce in Tamale, often stored for use over a week and used very sparingly. I have yet to see the water tap flow in the house where I have been staying for the past five days.

Reservoir on the White Volta.

Photo: Steve Hubbs.

The scenery on the White Volta was breathtaking. A wooden water taxi ferried villagers across a hazy river — nothing else human could be seen or heard. The water was greyish, reflecting the soil eroded by the headwaters.

Water treatment plant operators love to talk about their best stories. At the Tamale facility, their best story topped any I’ve heard in my 30 years on the Ohio River. They talked of big, confused river snakes being trapped by high water and trying to climb up on the bridge walkway linking the pump station to land. The operators discovered they could lead the snakes with the beam of a flashlight through the dark waters towards the shore and safety. (That’s never happened on the Ohio River!)

Once water plant operators get talking, it doesn’t matter where you’re from — the same issues and problems arise (except for those snakes). Their plant is designed like a U.S. plant; the staff is well-trained and qualified. The two plant staffers that showed me through the facility (Sayed Ismaili and Adam Sayibu) were dedicated and willing to discuss their specific problems, the biggest ones being dealing with varying raw water quality and staying within budget.

The next site I visited was a dam located in a watershed leading to the river. The reservoir behind the half-mile long dam fills during the rainy season and provides water to a massive farming area below during the dry season. The depth gage showed 5 meters remaining — the normal high level is 9 meters — with only one month remaining in the dry season.

This project seems to be an ideal application of technology in developing areas. The provision of water for food production year-round decreased the “lean” period at the end of the dry season. There was no accompanying disruption of the rural culture, as the people continued to live in villages surrounding the farming area.

I’m not sure the same result will occur with a massive upgrade of Tamale’s water supplies. Its population skyrocketed from 60,000 in 1960 to an estimated 450,000 in 1994, and is growing at an estimated rate of 4.2 percent annually. The city is not sewered. An increase in water usage would result in an increase in wastewater, a threat to public health that must be considered and addressed simultaneously.

The ideal solution to the water supply problems in Tamale would provide the basic water supply needs for continuous, reliable service to enhance public health without encouraging excessive migration from the rural communities. Thus, an ideal solution would preserve the rich African village culture and provide sustainable protection of public health. Reaching that ideal is obviously going to be very challenging, but it’s important to have it in focus as we proceed in our collaborations with our sister city.

Friday, 19 Mar 2004

TAMALE, Ghana.

We began our day by travelling to Tugu, a rural village 11 miles from urban Tamale (yet still on the outside edge of Tamale’s formal boundary). The residents of Tugu participated in a recent survey related to the Millennium Development Goals program, the same program that brought my colleague Steve Hubbs and I here. The results showed that clean drinking water and environmental protection are their top priorities. Our chief wanted to pay her respects to the Tugu chief, specifically to express her appreciation to the Tugu community for their participation.

A girl in Tugu.

Photo: Steve Hubbs.

The landscape along the way was typical savannah, yet noticeably greener in some places, perhaps because the water table is closer to the surface. We even saw some places where rice is grown during the rainy season. A huge Baobob marked the entrance to the village.

Each “compound” within the village is a necklace of mainly circular, though sometimes rectangular, one-room “houses” connected by walls. Most of the houses and walls are made of mud; roofs can be corrugated metal, which is hotter, but a status symbol, or cooler, traditional thatch. Most of a compound’s houses open onto its courtyard — not to the outside.

A chief’s compound is referred to as a palace. Its south-facing house has exterior and interior doors, the exterior of which opens toward the chief’s pavilion.

Meetings of chiefs are highly scripted by protocol. We drove to near the chief’s pavilion and stayed in our vehicle, while our chief’s assistant, Haroon, communicated to the Tugu chief’s elders, who then informed him of our arrival. When they returned, we were escorted to our proper places in the pavilion. When the delay appeared lengthy, Steve, Haroon, and I explored the village a bit. As we did, I noticed chewed-up D-cell batteries lying on the ground. I mentioned to Haroon that we needed to try to teach folks not to leave old batteries lying around; they contain dangerous chemicals that could harm goats and children.

When we returned to the pavilion, we found that various villagers had taken their places. (Unlike the previous two chiefs we visited, this village allowed some of the children to sit in the pavilion too; they were impressively well-behaved.) A fellow with a beautifully melodic voice began singing about the virtues of his chief. When he finished, the elders escorted the chief to his chair on an elevated platform.

With Haroon serving as translator, the chiefs greeted each other and exchanged gifts. We gave money (per protocol), and were given cola nuts and a live chicken. (I decided to sample my cola nut, found the first little bit too bitter, disposed of it without getting caught … and got no buzz.) When Steve and I were formally introduced to the chief, Haroon added what I’d said about the batteries lying around. Everyone seemed to earnestly listen.

When it became clear that we wanted to take pictures, their chief returned to his compound via procession with his elders, to change clothes. He returned, having added sunglasses (with the UV-protection sticker still on one lens) and his six wives to pose.

Lastly, the chief spoke about the importance of clean water and cooperation, quoting an African proverb: “If someone helps you by washing your back, you should wash your own front.”

Health Clinic Our next stop was the well-respected Wamale Health Clinic, also in rural Tamale, operated by Dr. David Abdulai. The clinic uses a bank of photovoltaic cells to power a pump for drawing groundwater into storage tanks, which are disinfected before use. We also saw the clinic’s catchment basin, which is used to collect water during the rainy season and to raise fish year-round. Water had eroded the basin’s overflow during the last rainy season. Villagers who’d been treated at the clinic, but couldn’t pay, were working to rebuild it. We liked the vibes we got from them as we spoke, and took their pictures in front of a nearby tree with cheerful yellow blooms.

After dropping our chief and her husband off at her palace, a fellow with the sanitation department took Steve and I to a “peri-urban village” to see the new pit toilets the municipality is constructing. One compound had a nearly-finished pair. At other compounds, we saw an unfinished cylindrical pit, made of curved masonry block, and the slab lids that would sit atop the pits. The plan is for a compound’s family (often numbering 15-20 people due to polygamy) to use one privy until it’s full and then switch to the other, while the contents of the first one break down. We did not hear how many iterations of this back-and-forth cycle a pair is expected to last or how the municipality decides where to build them.

Years ago, I read about a very clever installation in an Indonesian village: It consisted of two buildings of toilets and showers, an anaerobic digester between them, and two buildings of stoves to burn the gas generated by the digester. The villagers were able to get clean water and improved public health, and were also able to quit cutting down their trees for cooking fuel. I wondered if this model might work in Tamale, and was eager to see what we’d heard were somewhat similar installations.

When we arrived at this small hospital, there were lots of obviously sick people waiting on benches under a big tree outside the hospital, which sounded quite busy inside. I didn’t want to interrupt the doctor and instead asked to speak to the maintenance staff. When that fellow appeared, he took us to see their facilities.

A building with toilets and showers for men and women drained to a septic tank. The tank’s vent pipe was capped. I asked to open it, but was discouraged. Insisting I’m used to stinky smells, I asked again and was obliged, but had to put my nose an inch from it to smell anything. The pipe that looked to us like the one the gas would need to travel through to get to the kitchen for cooking was disconnected. Given the continued presence of a sign detailing construction information, we concluded that it wasn’t quite finished.

I was staying with Tamale’s mayor and his family, which made this trip especially rewarding. The household includes his wife, six children, two nephews, and staff — a fascinating beehive of activity, to say nothing of the goats, sheep, cow, chickens, dog, rabbits, and guinea pigs also inhabiting the compound.

That evening, the mayor attended a dinner at our chief’s palace and heard an update on our field visits. On our way home, he detoured to the hospital, found the doctor working in his office, and told me to tell him what I’d seen and concluded. The doctor insisted everything was working well and scolded me for not interrupting him so he could have shown us that nothing was wrong. I wanted to believe him and was willing to assume another pipe existed to carry the gas to the kitchen, but wondered how the odor could be so faint. It was too dark to try to reinvestigate.

This large hospital also had a septic-digestion-and-methane-utilization system. We found administrative staff, who directed us to other staff, who took us to the septic system with convincingly stinky vent-pipe gas. Next, we visited one of two refrigerators they said were running on the methane gas; the contents were not as cold as we keep things (few refrigerators here are), but we could confirm that it was running on gas.

Still, we got conflicting answers as to whether the kitchen stoves were also cooking with this gas. Since the septic tankage we’d seen looked too small for several large buildings, I asked how many patients they housed and was told they didn’t know. Their body language said I was probing into uncomfortable space, so I dropped the matter temporarily. We later learned that various problems keep the patient population low, so perhaps the gas-generation rate was on target for a society that conserves water and creates so little wastewater per person.

More worrisome was the fact that the overflow discharge from the septic system goes to an off-site stormwater drainage system, increasing the chances that downstream residents are being exposed to sick folks’ pathogens.

Saturday, 20 Mar 2004

TAMALE, Ghana.

The final report that Steve and I will submit to the sister-city committees in Louisville and Tamale will come in plain English and technical editions. It will summarize our findings, list conflicting information that needs reconciliation, and suggest steps toward realizing their goals of having more clean drinking water and increased environmental protection.

In interacting with our counterparts in the developing world, we sister cities face the following challenges (beyond the obvious one of pervasive poverty):

1. How far can we use our outside-expert status to prod our sister city to make positive changes without offending them? If we’re too nice, nothing will come of our visit and Tamale will be less likely to reach the goals they set for themselves. If we’re insensitive to cultural differences or the universal need to save face, we’ve gotten their hopes up for nothing.

2. How can we provide more water and appropriate wastewater treatment — to avoid conveying pathogens further — in the face of a common misperception that sewage disposal isn’t a big problem? We’ll need to focus not just on engineering, but also on the reality that adults don’t adopt new attitudes or behaviors without seeing how it benefits them. We’ll have to use social marketing; for example, we’re told women would value the safety and privacy of using a privy next to their compounds and their children rather than going in open fields or into drainage ditches.

3. How can we tackle problems facing hundreds of thousands of people and maintain credibility? Can we do demonstration projects in villages within Tamale, where we can expect proper construction and maintenance to catalyze other villages and elected officials to get involved?