Recently, a friend of a friend e-mailed me with questions about pursuing a PhD focused on water and sanitation in developing countries. Many of her questions were tough; they forced me to look closely at my research and experiences so far. But one absolutely stumped me: “In your opinion, what roles should the government, private corporations, and NGOs play in water systems in the developing world?” Was I supposed to answer that in an e-mail or could I submit it to her as a dissertation in a couple of years? While I cannot pretend to be able to fully answer the question, observations from my most recent trip to Ghana help me to make a first attempt at wrapping my head around it.
I returned to Ghana in May, nine months after my first trip there last year. Much of the city looked the same. One of the main highways was still under heavy construction. In the meantime, traffic continued to struggle through the mud below it, and we planned accordingly, adding an extra hour to get out of the city each morning for fieldwork. The supply and quality of water were still unreliable in the parts of the city that had piped water, and so people continued to drink water from sachets sold by vendors on the street. Some new buildings had sprung up; others had come down. I settled back in quickly with the sense that not much had changed.
Water is still acquired in Ghana, in a variety of methods
This feeling largely remained when we returned to the villages to perform focus group discussions and key informant interviews. Some villages had grown, which might be expected in the area surrounding Accra as the capital city expanded outward. But practices around water and sanitation seemed to have remained mostly unchanged. Some people purchased water from the community-level water treatment centers that were the focus of our research; others collected water from wells; some bought water from tanker trucks or delivery services; and still others continued to collect water from surface water sources. In some communities, use of the water treatment centers had increased; in others it had decreased or stayed the same.
It wasn’t until the second part of my trip that I really caught a glimpse of the changes that are happening with respect to water supply and treatment Ghana. For three weeks, I was on my own to interview people who are working to address this issue. They were members of governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, universities and for-profit companies. During this time, I learned about the Water and Sanitation Monitoring Platform (WSMP), which began in 2008 as a UNICEF pilot project. WSMP works to reconcile the differences between provider- and user-based data on water supply and to present this information in a way that’s more easily comprehensible to the general public. In doing this, the hope is that the people will be better able to hold the public sector accountable. I also spoke to members of the Coalition of NGOs in Water and Sanitation about their work towards facilitating communication among all of the NGOs in the sector so that individual organizations are aware of what others are doing and can collaborate and make greater gains instead of working blindly in parallel. I attended a workshop on the Sustainable Services at Scale (Triple-S) initiative, where individuals from the Community Water and Sanitation Agency presented on past efforts for the rural water supply and members of Triple-S and WASHCost spoke about pilot projects and life-cycle assessment of water supply projects, respectively.
Waiting at the kiosk
Most of the people I spoke to were working on community-level water supply and treatment (with a ranging definition of “community”), but I did have the opportunity to speak to a member of a for-profit company that produces a household water treatment (HWT) technology. This individual was aware of many of the efforts I had learned of over the course of those weeks, as would be expected of one working to gain a foothold in the market. But the reverse did not seem true. HWT was rarely discussed. Private sector involvement in water supply was recognized, but it seemed that HWT technologies produced by private companies were still largely off the radar.
This was a surprise to me, as I’ve spent the past couple of years poring over the HWT literature and researching specific technologies, some of which are being implemented in Ghana. Without exception, every individual who is involved in the production of a HWT technology is quick to say that theirs is not the solution. There is no one technology that will solve the problem. And it seems from my time in Ghana that members of the water sector there recognize that they cannot solve the problem alone, and as a result, they are collaborating with each other. There is no one organization. Nor is there one scale at which the problem can be entirely addressed. It will be a mix of municipal-, community-, household-, and perhaps even individual-level treatment solutions.
In spite of these key recognitions by different stakeholders and the existing and newly established collaborations, it seems that not all of the necessary connections have been made. Changes are happening, but there is much to be done before they make their way from the offices and conference rooms to the communities and individuals.