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Opinions of Saturday, 17 October 2009

Columnist: Quaye, Nii Otu

Our Sanitation, Sewerage And Drainage Systems

, Whither Do We Steer: A Modest Outlook
By Dr. Nii Otu Quaye
There has been much hue and cry about our sanitation, how we dispose of trash of every kind, ordinary household rubbish, broken vehicles and furniture, non-biodegradable objects, engine oil, plastic and polythene bags, indiscriminately scattering filth all over our streets and neighborhoods amidst illegal structures posing environmental and health hazards. While these sanitation habits are serious and dangerous enough to evoke the deepest passions, the flaws in our intertwined sewerage and drainage systems are equally, if not more, reprehensible. As we move forward in the twenty-first century vying to cope with challenges that some of our former peers, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, etc., have put behind or are remarkably surmounting, we must conscientiously evaluate our system and how we can equally progress to catch up. Because some countries have hit their milestones in these areas of their developments, we do not need to engage in the daunting and probably unattainable exercise of reinventing the wheel. Instead, we should diligently research and proceed from what has been developed elsewhere. Specifically, we should invest in new technologies and advanced systems to revamp our infrastructure to promote human health and environmental stability. This article throws light on our feasible options by looking at what we had, what we presently do, and what we should strive for.
Without being overly graphic with unflattering detail, it suffices to say that our sewerage and drainage systems are all but admirable. Indeed, although these systems are vital components of our infrastructure, they have been woefully neglected almost throughout our history. In the olden days, we, like many countries, started with the pit "T" facilities, also known as “man holes”. Later in the fifties, we supplemented many of these old-fashioned facilities with portable systems, serviced by "night soil workers" who manually carried our excrements and dumped them at various places. Naturally, when it rained, these excrements flowed into our rivers, lakes, lagoons, seas, and landscapes, posing grave risks to our health and damaging the aquatic ecosystems. As time went by, we introduced water closets. In the early seventies, the government initiated a program presumably to expand the use of the water closet system to many, if not all, parts of the country. However, that bold and ambitious initiative was short-lived, dying prematurely by an abrupt change in government. While the water closet system is a huge improvement and our most modern sewerage facility to-date, a sizable chunk of our population is yet to have it in our homes and places of work. Thus, the pit system and "no system at all" unfortunately continue to be an intricate part of our sewerage infrastructure, leading inevitably to defecation of virtually all our society, including some of the most pricy areas of the country. Just go to Cantonments near the "millennium houses" and the LaBone area, and the stench of the place will tell it all. Moreover, even where we have water closets, we do not have the modern comprehensive treatment facilities that are in vogue elsewhere.
Specifically, in the more modern systems, all excrements are collected and conveyed via a wide network of underground pipes and pumps that bring excrements into central processing plants. In these processing plants, solid wastes are detoxified, separated from liquids, and used to produce many beneficial by-products, including energy and fertilizers. The liquefied form is recycled and eased into the water systems with little or no negative impact on society, aquatic and non-aquatic organisms or the environment at large. Needless to say, the value of this process in supplementing water supply and mitigating water shortages in the advanced systems is phenomenal.
Like sewerage, drainage is sadly neglected in our society. Even where we have gutters, the gutters are inefficient, always filled with trash and filth that produce "dirty" flood when it rains. Here too, there is a sharp contrast between what we currently have and what pertains elsewhere. In the more advanced societies, I have witnessed instances where torrential rains caused floods all over, sometimes to the level of a waist line on roads in major cities, rendering vehicles inoperable. However, through efficient drainage systems in these societies, emergency crews are able to ease the floods swiftly within minutes by opening emergency valves for the waters to go through. In most cases, the waters are sanitized and recycled into the regular water systems for use while solid materials are separated and used beneficially for production of fertilizers and energy, etc. Our system, by contrast, has nothing to facilitate drainage, curb floods, or salvage anything for beneficial use. Accordingly, when the rains come, they massively destroy crops, livestock, and other valuable property and dry out with no system for utilizing it to mitigate shortages. But these are not the only deleterious impacts of our on-going shortcomings. Indeed, experts have cautioned that just one drop of oil can render 25 liters of untreated water unsafe for drinking. Likewise, the experts have warned that a gram of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), a substance used in our everyday lives, from ordinary personal care products to pesticides, is enough to make one billion liters of water unfit for even freshwater life. In yet another study, experts have reported on how all fish placed 2.2 km of sewerage discharge died within minutes. In the challenging times confronting us in which we now lag behind many of our former peers, it is imperative for us to take a second look at ourselves and study how we can emulate the best practices elsewhere to improve our health and help promote stability in our ecosystem. Let’s conscientiously take our destiny into our hands and pursue this noble challenge because, if we don’t do so, nobody will do it for us.
Frankly, the sanitation, sewerage and drainage issues should be crucial on our radar screen. We should convene two separate task forces, comprising Ghanaian engineers, and entrust them with researching the best practices and the best technologies in the world. Among the systems to consider are the British, the German, the United States, the Canadian, the Israeli, the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indians. Once the task forces identify the best technologies and engineers, Ghanaian lawyers should be recruited to craft air-tight (corruption-free) requests for proposals, a.k.a. invite bids from the experts. These RFPs should make it clear that much of the labor must be performed by Ghanaians. In addition, the lawyers should write the contracts to make the eventual bid winners partner with Ghanaian professionals to oversee the work. The goals, again, are (1) to install a modern inter-linked central sewerage system with universal processing plants that mechanically process our sewer as done in the advanced countries and (2) create gutters equipped with modern processing plants with efficient drainage that can regularly ease floods when the rains come torrentially and foster recycling of water to help ease our chronic water shortages.
Keeping with our "one nation, one people, and one destiny" philosophy, we should strive to bring these vital infrastructural projects to every part of the country to all families, not to just a privileged few. Cost, undoubtedly, would be prohibitive. However, this should not deter us because, without these infrastructural developments, we will only mark time or continue with our disappointing retrogressive slide. If others have been able to do it, we can too. Indeed, if we can take huge loans to launch some of the highly debated projects we have embarked on in our recent past, taking loans for these extremely worthy sanitation-sewerage-drainage projects should be a non-issue. However, to avoid biting more than we can chew, we should start rationally with the major cities in the country and gradually weave our ways through to the rest of the country. To proceed meaningfully, the programs, once launched, should be backed by appropriate legislation forbidding at pains of penalties our current practices and our indiscriminate construction of buildings and illegal structures anywhere, without any organization, plan, or zoning regulations.
In our country where many people are dying for jobs that are nonexistent, launching these worthy projects will create enormous employment opportunities. In turn, not only would they improve our health and lives, but they would as well promote tourism, attract foreign investments, and hopefully curb idling, armed robbery, other unmanageable social-economic ailments, and bring us on track in our resolve to modernize our society. I am confident that modernizing our sanitation, sewerage, and drainage systems would be a "win win," affording our government the highest marks and, indeed, etching it in the minds of posterity as the legendary regime that reversed these aspects of our infrastructure from its otherwise unstoppable downward slide. Let’s move on, choosing optimism over pessimism; diligence over indolence; and progress over stagnation, despair, and retrogression!
By Nii Otu Quaye