We at Tersus Ghana, like most well-meaning Ghanaians, are embarrassed. We are embarrassed that Accra, the capital city of Ghana is tagged as one of the most trash riddled cities in Africa, with some communities like Agbogbloshie ranked by the Blacksmith Institute among the world’s top ten most toxic environments (along with Chernobyl, Ukraine – the site of the 1986 nuclear radioactive disaster).
We are particularly worried because research has made it abundantly clear that clean cities promote physical and mental health of the citizens. In terms of tourism, we also factually concede that though tourists increased from 325,000 in 1996 to over 1.73 million in 2011, a clean city can attract even more tourists. It comes as no surprise therefore that these days, cleanliness has become a prime matter of concern in many cities in the sub-region. And it is in this same spirit that we welcome the government’s comprehensive initiative with the launch of the national sanitation campaign – on Monday, November 13. We share in this ambition and think things must change for the better, and significantly, the change must be now; it must be sustainable and indeed, it must be a way of life.
Getting the fundamentals right…
But to get the change that we want, Tersus believe we must first get the fundamentals right. We must be honest to ask the right questions and seek the right answers. For example, why are we where we are today? What did we do wrong and what are we doing to right the wrong? What would it take cities to improve waste collection coverage and quality? What role can all stakeholders play in planning, implementation and monitoring to avoid situation where our solutions have become dissolution or avoid a process of circular and cumulative causation? Today, while some studies have reported gradual improvement in collection coverage in some middle-income countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, the average coverage remains worrisomely below 80%, particularly in lower middle-income cities.
Recent studies indicate that Accra faces a fourfold risk overlap. These include: local public health hazards; poor city-region air quality, water and industrial pollution; vulnerabilities to natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and storms; and amplification of some of these factors by the local impact of climate change especially as regards to floods and storm surges. Overall, small everyday hazards related to the brown or environmental health agenda still continue to account for the greatest burden of disease and premature death and serious injury in 21st century Accra, with their economic and social costs fall on poor families with little political fallout for city and national governments. For example, the year 2014 will forever be remembered as one of the years that another cholera pandemic struck the city and attacked about 16,500 defenseless people. This pandemic, which started in early June 2014, disappointingly affected 123 of the then 216 districts in all the 10 administrative regions of Ghana, with a cumulative figure of 26,286 cases with 211 deaths giving a case fatality rate of 0.8%. Paradoxically the wealthiest city was also the most hit accounting for 72% of all cases. Similarly, the June 3rd 2015 twin disaster in Accra resulted in the loss of about 200 lives and loss of property and livelihoods. “The Red Cross assessment figures indicated that up to 46,370 people were affected in some way in five localities – Nima, Aworshie, Aladjo, Adabraka, Low McCarthy Hill.
History’s painful lessons
The embarrassing situation in Accra provides a food for thought. Unfortunately, the repetitiveness nature of the sanitation challenge suggests we have not learnt from our past experiences and therefore these horrid conditions are unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. In 2011, the city began with a fee- and performance-based strategy to improve waste collection coverage. Conceptually, the strategy had two key aspects: first, to offer the private sector an opportunity to bid competitively to participate in a 5-year franchise agreement, and secondly, to shift the responsibility for payment collection for services to these same franchise-holders. The Metropolis then retained for itself certain control functions, including responsibility to set the user charges, enforce the requisite legislations and monitor the service providers to ensure efficient service delivery.
This initiative, though promising, has so far failed woefully in achieving its set goals. That notwithstanding, it offers lots of history’s painful lessons which perhaps we have not yet learnt. For example, research has shown that the tendency of local authorities to choose for private sector participation has more to do with the political difficulties involved in improving public sector operations, than in a genuine interest in what the private sector has to offer. Moreover, the authorities’ focus on formal sector privatisation appears to be misplaced, when informal micro-enterprise service providers have demonstrably shown that they can do a better job at a lower cost. Other empirical studies further reveal that the informal micro-enterprise collection sector, is accounting for about 30% of all solid waste collected in Accra, and their activity is responsible for the 25% increase in coverage recorded within the past five years since 2011. Till date, research shows that over 95% of all scraps used locally in the furnaces in steel industries in Tema are from the informal sector. Additionally, the country in 2011 officially exported metal scrap to 31 countries, representing a US$2.4 million business, and yet again, the unrecognized, often stigmatized informal sector championed this trade.
Looking for a clean city….
Turning a blind eye on all these developments have the potential to harm our quest of a clean city significantly. Although we know with business as usual, the future may hold significant dangers, yet our policy directions appear ill-defined, creating a challenging analytical problem. Thus, despite mounting research-based evidence of operational efficiency and effectiveness in adopting all inclusive private sector participation, waste managers and local government officials appear reluctant to believe that this will improve the system. Nor do the traditional approaches to planning produce a blueprint for co-operation with micro-enterprises. Their appetite for foreign-based flavoured solutions is rising to crescendo of misery. If the situation is to improve in our cities, something has to change in this regard. Studies indicate that the current situation will persist and perhaps worsen until and unless the imported solutions are integrated with indigenously derived knowledge and strategies, something it appears we are not doing today—or not doing correctly.
We at Tersus believe in the power of scientific research and we will always support such a call. We hold the view that policies and regulatory initiatives which develop out of empirical vacuum, are at best, to defeat themselves and sometimes inflict collateral damage or more likely suffer illusionary compliance. In our quest to support Accra improve the sanitation situation, our policy choices must be underpinned by the fact that the city is embroiled in multifaceted crises – liquid and solid waste management, rising housing deficit, ambient air pollution, etc. Consequently, the urban poor who form the majority of Accra’s residents, have little chance of improving their lives. They will therefore necessarily be even more reliant on the provision of state (social) services.
In ensuring a clean environment to achieve the President’s vision of making Accra the cleanest city in Africa, and indeed to make Ghana the cleanest country on the continent, Tersus recommends, among other considerations, that qualified and technical staff be employed to man sanitation offices. Appointment of staff to such offices must not be drawn into the arena of politics whilst windows and avenues to corruption be got rid of to ensure that resources to the sector are judiciously effectively managed to achieve the set goals.
Fixing the systemic failures
Tersus believes and as several studies have made them abundantly clear. the sanitation crisis is a systemic failure extending across national and local government, and therefore reversing the trend will take both short-run and long-run interventions. A short-run measure, such as the National Sanitation Campaign exercise will in the very least increase the awareness creation among both the citizenry and public officials. In the main, the short-term should also aim at holding public officials to account, reforming state owned responsibilities and reversing the numerous institutional weaknesses at all levels of government.
In the long-run, both the public and private stakeholders will also need to formulate long-term policies. In this direction, we believe that to improve the quality of the overall environmental management strategy such a policy must be empirical research driven. This will also mean employing qualified personnel and providing requisite skills training to those who handle waste. The situation where waste business is derogatorily reserved for a section of the society or used as a reward for poorly educated political foot soldiers must not be re-visited for it has not worked in the past and will not today nor tomorrow. Above all, if Ghana is to overcome the sanitation challenge, then the country’s badly frayed socio-economic fabric will need to be ultimately re-stitched, not just patched.
The writer is the Ag. Vice President, Tersus Ghana and with the Department of Geography and Resource Development.University of Ghana, Legon, Accra
About Tersus Ghana:
Tersus is an environmental sanitation academic think tank, open to all Scientists and Researchers of the academia, members of the Civil Society Organizations and Industry-based experts who share in our vision of ensuring a sanitized environment in Africa through pragmatic world-class research.