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02/09/2012

Growing crops with sewer water in Ghana

 Hose   A man in Accra, Ghana hoses down his urban garden using sewage water. Photo by Danny Kresynak

By Danny Kresynak

Nuuna works in one of the vegetable gardens growing in the shadow of Military Hospital No. 37 in Accra, Ghana. The tall 24-year-old is the eldest of five children living in his mother’s house. He works hard to maintain a balance between family obligations and time in the field while also pursuing an education.

Nuuna’s callused hands stand as an example of his hard work, each day he and his siblings earn their pay by plucking crops from the soil, removing the small leaves, severing the stock and binding individual sprigs together to be sold. The bundles are then put into corrugated boxes bound for local and international markets.

“Some stays here, but almost everything we pull up gets sent to the U.K. or Europe,” Nuuna says.

The land where Nuuna grows his crops is irrigated with water drawn from both a well and a stream fed by run-off from city sewers. He says the property is government-owned, but still not on the water supply grid.

“I went to see them (the water and housing commission) about pipes many times," he says. "They would never talk to me, always said to go and come (back later). I think they wanted a bribe or something.”

Without fresh water, farmers like Nuuna are forced to grow crops using the water sources available.

One of those sources is a sewer that contains run-off from Accra's Military Hospital No. 37, built during the Second World War. About a year ago, the pipe carrying raw medical waste from the mortuary, maternity and surgical theatres to the treatment tank was damaged. Unable to fix the line, the hospital began dumping bio-hazardous material into the city’s open-gutters. Now, the sewers are overflowing and downstream the stench of contamination and concern is growing thick.

In the city, clean water is a critical commodity and it doesn’t come cheap. Drinking from faucets is rarely advised and potable sources are most likely found in a bottle or sachet. Open sewers carry liquid and solid waste material of all sort, and when they overflow the result can be devastating.

Last year during the rainy season, Accra was rocked by flooding and the rapid tide of a cholera epidemic.  Nearly 6,000 people fell ill with 80 eventually dying from the disease. Cholera can be treated with rehydration fluids but amongst infants, the elderly and the infirm death can occur within hours. The youngest victim of the outbreak was only eight days old when her tiny body succumbed to the bacterial infection.

At this point, no provable connection between hospital waste and outbreak has been established. However, many living near MH-37 have complained of general poor health and the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that epidemics become virulent when water caches are contaminated.

The Globe newspaper and Citi-fm radio station, both based in Accra, developed and broke a medical waste story near the end of January. The news sparked public outrage and in response the AMA (Accra Metropolitan Assembly) formed an emergency fact-finding committee. The investigation found deplorable conditions at the hospital and authored a series of recommendations. The list includes an overhaul of the drainage system and repairs to deteriorating hospital infrastructure, it is also opening the door to charges of criminal negligence.

The AMA’s official report states the target is to prevent future dumping and endangerment of public health. However, the committee failed to acknowledge the residual realities faced by urban farmers in Accra, according to reports.

The hospital was unavailable for comment.


Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada’s Youth International Internship Program in Ghana and Malawi, the Canadian International Development Agency in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development in Liberia. Meet the jhr bloggers.

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  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

    Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada's Youth International Internship Program.

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