Fredrik Sunesson had high hopes when the first tanker truck unloaded feces from some of Accra’s 4 million residents at his recycling plant in Ghana’s capital. Seventeen months later, those expectations have been dashed.
A combination of red tape and disputes over payments mean Sunesson’s Slamson Ghana Ltd. is running far below capacity, he says. Most of the 140 tankers moving the contents of Accra’s toilets each day drive instead to a foul-smelling point near the Gulf of Guinea known as Lavender Hill. The lagoon there is so polluted that scientists says most life-forms can’t survive. The slum nearby has earned the nickname Sodom and Gomorrah.
“It’s a shame for everybody, most of all for the environment and the people of Accra,” Sunesson said.
Despite a series of infrastructure projects backed by foreign donors, Accra doesn’t have a working sewer system, leaving most of its citizens to choose between communal latrines or defecating on open ground. That’s contaminating the city’s groundwater, according to the World Bank, and almost 700 people have contracted cholera since June. The failure to maintain existing treatment plants has rendered them unusable, while a lack of political will means there’s little prospect of any immediate improvement.
Accra’s problems are an example of how external investment and good intentions often aren’t enough to make a difference in Africa. As many as seven out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to flush or chemical toilets or latrines, according to the World Bank.
African countries including Kenya to Malawi are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve sanitation and build processing centers for waste. That kind of infrastructure investment is a focus of this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington attended by U.S. President Barack Obama and more than 40 African leaders.
The World Bank plans to give Ghana $150 million in grants to improve access to potable water and basic toilets for the poorest residents of Accra, where most roads are lined with open drains and gutters that overflow during heavy rain.
“Ghana is among those countries with the lowest coverage in sanitation and also among those where coverage isn’t improving,” Flemming Konradsen, an expert on international environmental health at the University of Copenhagen, said by phone. “Sanitation generally isn’t a priority of the population and it isn’t a sufficient priority of politicians.”
The absence of proper sanitation in Ghana’s capital is shaving about 1.6 percentage points from the country’s economic growth each year, according to the World Bank, which is based in Washington.
Ghana’s recent growth has still been dramatic, averaging about 8 percent in the past decade, pushing the country into lower-middle income status. Shopping malls, luxury housing and even a Nobu-inspired Japanese restaurant have sprung up since the discovery of oil in 2009.
All that masks how inadequate the sanitary system is, Ventura Bengoechea, a sanitation specialist at the World Bank, said in an interview. More than half of the population dumps solid waste in open spaces, Ghana’s national statistical service said last year in a report. Accra officials declined to comment on the city’s sanitation problems.
Accra “wants tourism, the city wants you to be happy here,” said Robert Ansah, an adviser to the city’s mayor on sanitation issues. “We want the population to be healthy and we don’t want them defecating on the beaches.”
In Accra’s central Labadi neighborhood, Ayitey Mensah and his neighbors didn’t bother to repair the toilet shared by 20 families when it broke eight years ago. They now clamber down a dune and defecate on the shoreline.
“If I go to a public toilet, I have to pay,” Mensah, a 36-year-old welder, said in an interview. “This place, we call it the beach toilet. Plenty of people prefer to come here.”
In May, Ghana’s government shelved a $595 million project to improve sewers, wastewater treatment and storm drains in Accra. More planning is needed, according to Ansah, who also serves as the project’s executive secretary.
The U.S. Export-Import Bank guaranteed financing for the plan, which included dredging the slimy black lagoon on Accra’s shoreline. Without dredging, the lagoon’s trash-strewn banks have been left with mounds of sludge as high as three-story buildings.
A $22 million wastewater treatment plant nearby stopped working shortly after being built in 2000 because it wasn’t maintained, according to the World Bank. Three fecal-sludge treatment plants don't work because of poor maintenance. The existing sewer system, which reaches fewer than 10 percent of city’s residents, isn’t being looked after, the lender said.
“You can’t solve drainage and not look at sanitation or not look at waste disposal,” Ansah said. “It’s a multi-faceted problem.”
The treatment plants “were difficult to operate, or sometimes there’s no electricity,” the World Bank’s Bengoechea said. “The city authority doesn’t have the technical capacity nor the funding to run” them. There’s also a lack of political impetus to provide basic sanitation, according to a study published by the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.
Meanwhile the trucks continue to show up every day at Lavender Hill. Despite a court order to close the site, city authorities continue to take a fee of 15 cedis ($4) per load. That’s enough to pay for proper treatment for the waste, the World Bank said.
“The government should give small-scale enterprises who are already on the ground a chance to expand their business, because sanitation can be a profitable venture,” said Konradsen at the University of Copenhagen.
Sunesson, Slamson Ghana Ltd.’s owner, say his company’s initial investment to handle half of the city’s fecal waste and convert it into fertilizer pellets was $2 million, much lower than what’s been spent on the other plants that now stand idle.
“Maintenance on this installation is so limited, there’s so little you need to do,” he said. “You don’t need the latest technology, you need technology that’s appropriate.”