Governance and Filth - Urban Waste Management in Africa

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A Tale of Three Cities

As a rule, I am skeptical of newfangled rankings and lists - top 10 this, top 50 that.  They seem to sprout everywhere nowadays.  

Surely, some rankings are sound and credible.  These take the trouble to detail the criteria and methodologies used to arrive at their findings.  Examples are the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report and UNDP’s Human Development Index.  Similarly, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the Mo Ibrahim Index and the Afrobarometer survey, which purport to measure good governance, are generally trusted. But for each credible ranking, dozens of sham ones are spawned.  

Thus, I was naturally suspicious when I chanced upon a list of “Top 10 Cleanest Cities in Africa” published by a group called Africa Ranking, which claims to “provide in-depth information on the most interesting facts about Africa”. My suspicion increased when I noticed that my beloved Accra, at number seven, ranked higher than Windhoek, at number 10.  (Incidentally, Windhoek was ranked the “cleanest city in Africa by another website, Skyscrapercity.com) I asked myself: Did these guys see the Odaw River? Did they smell the Korle Lagoon?  Did they visit Sodom and Gomorrah? But when I saw Kigali ranked number one, I believed it.   

 

The Miracle of Kigali

I first visited Kigali in 1985.  The city then comprised mostly thatch-roofed huts and a few modern buildings scattered amidst lush, mostly banana, foliage.  A French colleague referred to it as a “une grande bananerie” (one big banana plantation). Fast forward to the 21st century.  Kigali has undergone a near miraculous transformation. Today it is undoubtedly among the cleanest and most ordered cities anywhere.  The thatch-roof houses have disappeared. And there isn’t a stray piece of paper, plastic or any kind of litter to be found anywhere.  How did this happen?  

For most outsiders, the mention of Rwanda and its capital, Kigali, evokes sheer horror.  And for good reason: the 1994 genocide was certainly one of the greatest atrocities of the past century. But the other story of Rwanda, which deserves to be told, is one of a nation motivated to bury its inglorious past, a nation rising, like a phoenix, from the ashes of shame and anguish to rebuild and grow.  Rwanda in the 21st century is a country obsessed with success and impatient with distractions to its quest to shine.  This success must be achieved against severe odds: entrenched poverty, shortage of land and natural resources, difficulty of access and the need to rebuild trust and unity among a populace still traumatized by memories of genocide.

What Rwanda possesses is leadership with a laser-sharp focus on socio-economic development.  Its forward march to development is executed with remarkable discipline.  In Rwanda, zero tolerance for corruption is not a mere slogan.  Government officials, from ministers to provincial and district chief executives must publicly account for their stewardship.  Performance is assessed against clearly defined indicators and targets.  Rewards and sanctions are meted out accordingly. 

It is through this prism of accountable and results-oriented governance that one should view waste management in Kigali. The City Council operates an efficient system amidst what it acknowledges are a weak infrastructure coupled with severe financial and expertise constraints.  In the medium term, it plans, with the assistance of external partners, to construct a sewerage system, an off-site treatment plant and a sanitary landfill, critical waste management infrastructures it currently lacks.  But meanwhile the council intends “continuing, expanding, building-up and strengthening those services within our own capacities, required for sustained solid and liquid waste management system.”1 

Experts in the field talk about the 3Rs of waste management: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.  Rwanda has given a politically courageous twist to the first R, the concept of waste reduction. It has banned the use of non-biodegradable plastic throughout the country!  That policy alone has significantly reduced its waste management burden.  Any casual observer can attest to the destructive impact of the widespread use of plastic bags in most cities in Africa.  They litter the streets, choke the drains, pollute water bodies, poisoning and choking fish to death en masse. Yet most African governments seem to be at a loss how to handle the problem. 

Not Rwanda.  The authorities, recognizing their limited capacity to reuse and recycle plastic waste, just banned it. The effect has been dramatic.  As the table below shows, less than 2% of waste collected in the three districts of Kigali city is plastic-based. Rather, about 95% of the urban waste is from food, paper, grass, textile or wood, which are biodegradable and compostable.  

 

Types of Waste Generated in Kigali, by District

 

 

Nyarungenge

Kasabo

Kicukiro

 

Food

66.4

 

67.5

66.7

Paper

16.4

16.6

15.4

Grass

6.7

7.3

6.8

Plastic

1.6

1.0

1.0

Metal

0.9

0.5

1.9

Textile

1.8

2.4

1.8

Glass

1.6

0.8

1.7

Wood

3.2

3.0

2.5

Leather

0.5

0.2

0.4

Cans

0.9

0.7

0.9

 

Source: Kigali State of Environment Report and Outlook 2013. Table 4.4

Another reason Kigali is clean is the way waste is collected.  Designated contractors collect waste directly from households, which pay a nominal fee for the service.  Fee-based household waste collection indeed exists in most African cities.  But they are usually restricted to more affluent neighborhoods.  Most other residents have to deal with container bins in their neighborhoods. When the bins are not evacuated promptly they quickly become waste dumps.  By removing these from the chain of waste management, the Kigali city council eliminated a significant environmental nuisance and health hazard. 

Thus, Kigali, through a sensible and low-cost policy on plastic waste and house-to-house waste collection has managed to overcome its infrastructure and resource deficits and become arguably the cleanest city in Africa. 

 

Moroni – A Modest and Precarious Success

In 2007, the first thing that struck me as a visitor to Moroni, the capital of Comoros, was the filth.  Garbage and rubbish were everywhere. The favorite dumping ground for household waste was the beach road, the city’s main highway.  People transported waste from their homes (in head pans, wheelbarrows and taxis) and dumped them by the roadside.  There were flies everywhere, as well as rats, mongooses and all sorts of vermin. The impact of all this filth was devastating. Cholera was endemic, commonly accepted as a fatality.  Dermatological and gastro-intestinal afflictions were common, especially among children. International health and development specialists openly expressed fear of a plague outbreak.

For those unfamiliar with this pretty Indian Ocean archipelago, a brief recap of its recent political history may be in order. Comoros holds the African record of coups d’état and other disruptions of government. From independence in 1975 to 2001, the country witnessed at least 26 successful or attempted coups d’état, three mercenary invasions and the assassination of three presidents.  Beneath this turmoil flows an undercurrent of separatism driven by the difficult co-habitation of the three main islands, Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli, and an ongoing dispute with France for sovereignty over the fourth, Mayotte.  

The turbulence has abated somewhat since the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) brokered a constitution in 2001, which created the Union of Comoros, a shaky federal structure with a rotating presidency among the constituent Islands. However, politics remains divisive and riven by suspicions.  The threat of separatism is never far below the surface.  Indeed in 2008, the Union government, with African Union endorsement and supported by troops from Sudan and Tanzania, invaded Anjouan Island to eject the separatist leader, Mohamed Bacar.  Despite deep-seated poverty and other significant threats, including the very active Karthala Volcano, politicians prefer to engage in “la politique politicienne”, an unending wrangling on issues of little apparent relevance to socio-economic development.  The political volatility has weakened national institutions and the population’s faith in them. In this context, nobody cared about waste management. 

When I arrived in Comoros as the United Nations Resident Coordinator, I convinced the UN country team to tackle filth in Moroni. Reflecting the modest resources available, we devised a simple, cost-effective approach to sustainable waste management, which hinged on three components - collection, transportation and disposal of household waste. 

The first challenge was to tackle waste collection from individual homes. As waste is generated every day and people cannot live with it in their homes, the prompt collection and evacuation of household waste is essential. Otherwise, people seek to dispose of their waste any way they can.  In Moroni, some attempted to burn the waste, emitting toxic fumes.  Many dumped it around their own or neighbors’ compounds. Others transported it farther afield to improvised dumpsites, which sprung up at embarrassing places - near the Chinese and French embassies, the constitutional court and the island’s main harbor- attracting pests and scavengers.

Surprisingly, household waste collection in Moroni proved quite easy. An intensive communication and education campaign directed residents to transport their waste to trucks deployed in their neighbourhoods.  The trucks parked at designated spots for one hour at a time and households brought their accumulated trash at the appointed time. City authorities availed two waste disposal trucks and the UN provided a third. The level of compliance was amazing, debunking widespread belief among expatriate and local skeptics alike that “Comorians don’t care about waste management; they simply don’t see the filth”.  

Waste disposal in Moroni presented two significant difficulties. The first was eliminating the mountainous improvised dumpsites.  The second was to locate a proper disposal site. Project organizers tackled the dumpsites by organizing a well-publicized “Clean Moroni” campaign over three successive weekends. The campaign mobilized hundreds of city dwellers, who volunteered their labor, equipment, even trucks to clear the waste from the offending sites. The Vice-President of the Union, the Governor of the Island, the Mayor of Moroni as well as several political leaders participated in the exercise. “No rubbish” signs were erected at cleared sites and any waste dumped there was promptly evacuated. In an audacious twist, the project organizers decided to convert four of the largest dump sites, near the harbor and on the beach road, into mini-parks.  Horticulturists were hired to clear the land, landscape the areas and install benches.

The second and greater difficulty was the absence of a landfill for safe disposal of waste.  A temporary landfill was created at the city’s old airport located far from human settlements.  This temporary solution was planned to last for six months pending the identification of a permanent landfill site by the Island and city authorities. Unfortunately, the quest for an appropriate site was politically contentious and dragged on for years.  Meanwhile, the temporary landfill was continually expanded until it began to stretch its environmentally safe limits.

Despite this setback, the household collection system endured.  Inspired by the initiative, several neighborhoods organized their own street cleaning exercises on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis.  Public-spirited merchants and well-to-do residents provided “motivation” to neighborhood youth engaged in the cleanup in the form of cash, T-shirts, food and other in-kind rewards. 

The results of the Moroni waste management project were palpable.  Within weeks, the city was rid of the eyesore of uncontrolled and widespread rubbish.  The city’s example was emulated by the Island’s two other major cities, Mitsamiouili and Foumbouni, which launched their own waste management projects, with the assistance of other development partners. It is perhaps no coincidence that, since 2009, there has been no major outbreak of cholera in the city.  However, the absence of a permanent landfill site hangs over the city like a Damocles sword.

 

Accra - Sound and fury signifying nothing

 

On 3rd June 2015, disaster struck Accra in spectacular, biblical, fashion.  Flood and fire extinguished over 150 souls at a fuel station near the Kwame Nkrumah Circle. The disaster generated a national debate on urban waste management, notably the disposal of plastic waste, unregulated informal settlements and the link between poor drainage and perennial flooding in Accra. 

A raft of seemingly uncoordinated official actions followed the disaster. The city authorities embarked on willy-nilly demolition of fuel stations, unauthorized structures built on waterways and, most dramatically, the razing of Old Fadama, popularly called Sodom and Gomorrah, Accra’s most infamous slum. The sense of action mollified residents horrified and traumatized by the disaster, and the much-reviled Mayor gained a sudden, if eventually short-lived, spurt in popularity.

And then nothing… Some of the actions announced with much fanfare, such as the dredging of the Odaw River, stalled or drifted into the familiar quagmire of partisan political bickering.  Then, on 12th July, 2015 then President Mahama released a plastic trial balloon: he warned that the Government might ban the use of plastics, “go the Rwanda way”, as he put it. A few days later, the Minister of Environment announced a ban on the production and importation of ultra thin plastic starting August 2015.  August came and went.  Nothing. Come December, the harmattan arrived.  As residents complained about the heat and dust, the memory of 3rd June receded. And the cycle continued...

Ghana is one of the few countries in Africa where democracy truly thrives.  Electoral politics is plural and highly competitive.  The press is free and loud, even cacophonous in the margins.  A vocal and increasingly professional civil society holds government to account. The international community and governance experts applaud, and Ghanaians are justifiably proud.  

But there is a flip side to this nascent democracy. Governments elected with razor-thin margins hesitate to take bold actions that might negatively affect their electoral fortunes. Instead they spin elaborate propaganda, a smoke-and-mirrors imitation of governance. This has led to policy drift and stagnation in many areas, as successive governments rubbish and abandon initiatives by their predecessors. Waste management in Accra epitomizes this policy vacillation.

Many visitors to Ghana’s capital, especially other Africans, love and admire the city.  They cite its friendly people, safety, security – and cleanliness.  And therein lies the rub. Most residents of Accra would be shocked to learn that visitors find their city clean.  Indeed two mayors in the past decade have seen their political careers come unstuck due to their perceived failure to deal with the filth of Accra.  The immediate past mayor teetered precariously on the brink of citizen revolt for the very same reason.  So, why do visitors see a clean city and residents perceive one wallowing in filth? The fact is, unlike Moroni, Accra hides its filth well.  All ceremonial streets, major highways, commercial and administrative districts as well as higher income residential neighborhoods are kept scrupulously clean. These are the areas many visitors frequent.  But most residents live with a different waste management reality.  And they complain quite loudly.

There is indeed much to gripe about.  However, in this paper, we will concentrate on three main challenges: household waste collection and disposal; management of plastic waste; and poor drainage/flood control.  These three have major ramifications on the city’s economy, health and disaster risk.  They are also problems that can be easily addressed with common sense approaches.

 

Household waste collection and disposal in Accra – a virtual apartheid 

In the more affluent neighborhoods of Accra, waste management contractors collect waste from households regularly and promptly.  Residents pay an economic rate for this service.  The result is a clean environment. It is a different story in other parts of the city, where the majority of residents live  As low-income residents are deemed too poor to pay for the service, there is no house-to-house waste collection. Rather, residents transport their waste to large container bins located in their communities. The city pays contractors to collect and transport the waste to designated landfills. 

The system does not work well. Despite the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) spending up to 80% of its revenues on waste management, it struggles to pay waste contractors on time.  Frequent delays in payments mean the waste is not evacuated on time or not at all.  Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that of the 2800 metric tons of solid waste generated daily in Accra, only 2,200 are evacuated.  Thus 600 metric tons of uncollected waste accumulates daily and is simply left to rot in situ or, when it rains, to run off into open drains. In some of the poorer neighborhoods it is a common sight to see vultures and other scavengers swarming overflowing container bins right in the middle of residential neighborhoods and markets. 

The plastic curse: litter, litter everywhere

In Ghana, as in many African countries, plastics are the packaging material of choice. Everything you buy, from a street hawker or roadside food seller, in a market or mall, is packed in a polythene bag.  Plastic bags are popular because they are convenient and cheap. Increasingly, even the water you drink comes in a sealed plastic packet, commonly called “sachet” or “pure” water.  Hundreds, of “pure water” companies all over the country produce and sell millions of this water-in-a-sachet every day. They are generally safe to drink.  They also generate massive amounts of non-biodegradable waste. 

In the absence of litterbins in public places, plastic packaging is strewn indiscriminately in the open.  Rain and wind then drive them to the open drains and water bodies, which they choke. Some find their way into the ocean.  It is not uncommon for revelers at otherwise pristine beaches to be confronted with tons of plastic-laden waste blown back by the tide.  Fishermen plying their trade close to the coast report instances of shoals of fish choked to death by plastic waste.    

Residents moan and whine.  City, health and environmental authorities join in the chorus of complaints about “irresponsible” littering.  But nobody does anything about it.  There is too much at stake.  The sachet water business has blossomed into a huge industry, providing employment and livelihood for thousands of otherwise jobless Ghanaians.  In September 2014, the National Association of Sachet and Packaged Water Producers (NASPAWAP) estimated at over 3,000 the number of sachet water producers in the Accra-Tema metro area alone.  Another 3,000 dot the rest of the country.  Industry players estimate they contribute up to 100,000 direct and over a million indirect jobs2 nationwide. These numbers confer significant clout on NASPAWAP, which has become a strong lobbying force.  No politician can ignore these numbers.  They also give pause to over-zealous regulators.  Thus, occasional talk of a tax on sachet water to fund plastic waste management tends to fizzle out in the face of robust resistance by producers. 

The overabundance of plastic has inspired a fledgling plastic waste recycling industry.  A variety of private sector and NGO initiatives have been launched to collect and recycle plastic waste.  Two of the major players in the field, Zoomlion and J Stanley Owusu, have initiated industrial-scale projects, which aim to convert plastic waste into pelletized fuel for use in kilns. Other smaller companies, such as Jekora Ventures and Trashy Bags contribute their bit.  But these initiatives do not match the scale of the problem.  

Clogged gutters and stagnant lagoons

Poor drainage aggravates waste management problems in Accra.  Much of the city encased in a concave formed by hills stretching from Weija, Macarthy Hill, and Tantra Hill in the west, through Pokuase and the University of Ghana in the North and northwest, and then eastwards towards Peduase and the Akuapem mountains. Inside this concave lies the bulk of the city – the central business district, government ministries and residential areas where up to half of the 3 million residents live.  All of this is flatland; when it rains, much of it becomes wetland.

Why is the topography of Accra germane to its waste management? It is because the city has a notorious drainage and sewerage system.  The open drains constructed in colonial times still crisscross the city.  Mostly, these have become receptacles for dross and litter of all kinds, but increasingly of plastic waste.  When it rains, the effluvium from these drains flows in one direction – towards the Odaw River.  This “river”, now merely one big waste receptacle, runs from north to south for some 10 km towards the sea.  But it never reaches the ocean; its access it blocked by the Korle Lagoon into which it empties its contents.

The Odaw River and Korle Lagoon, which now form a single co-mingled water body, represent a spectacular failure of waste management, and indeed city planning.  It does not take excessive imagination to picture a clean and blue waterway running down the middle of Accra, like the Thames in London, the Seine in Paris or the Nile in Cairo. Rather, on their shores have sprouted squalid markets, businesses and informal settlements, including the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah.  Rather than lagoon and river cruises and restaurants, the Odaw and Korle showcase the biggest eyesore - a health and environmental calamity.

.

 

Images Old Fadama (“Sodom and Gomorrah”)

The way forward for Accra

So, how does Accra tackle the triple threat of improper waste collection and disposal, plastic waste contamination and poor drainage/flood control? Let us consider possible solutions in light of experiences from successful programs elsewhere in Africa.

 

Collection and disposal of household waste.  

In the short term, say, over a 12-month period, city authorities should aim to eliminate container bins and institute door-to-door collection.  Households would accumulate their waste for collection on specified days and times by collection trucks, tricycles and other evacuation vehicles. The frequency of collection could vary from, say, daily to once or twice a week in depending on the density of the neighbourhood. As the examples of Kigali, Moroni and indeed many areas of Accra itself demonstrate, household-to-truck waste collection is less intimidating than it seems.  With sufficient communication and education, the population will readily comply.  On the other side of the bargain, waste collectors should keep to their advertised schedules in order to sustain the confidence of residents. Concurrently, a campaign should be launched to rid all communities of container bins and other dumpsites. It is important to involve concerned communities in these exercises to secure their buy-in.  Wherever feasible, the empty lots created by the removal of dumpsites should greened.

A tricycle-borne waste bin. Convenient for accessing high-density communities and markets

The success of household waste collection depends on the availability of adequate sanitary landfills or other disposal facilities.  This is a challenge, as current available landfill space can only accommodate about three quarters of Accra’s total waste generation.  It may be necessary to employ emergency measures to create temporary landfills to accommodate the additional waste.  One could envisage mobilising the engineers regiment of the Ghana armed forces as well as waste management companies for such an endeavor. 

However, in the medium to long term, the goal should be to be to eliminate landfills altogether.  This can be achieved through the adoption of waste-to-energy (WtE) technologies.  The new Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation has stated that this is precisely the new Government’s vision.  The goal is to derive 10 percent of national electricity output from waste by 2020. 

This is a laudable objective.  It is also achievable. In recent decades, WtE technology has become more accessible through the development of a variety of processes, including incineration, gasification, thermal de-polymerization, anaerobic digestion and fermentation.  All these processes can produce electricity and/or heat directly or yield by-products, such as methane-rich biogas, ethanol and hydrogen, which can then be used to fuel energy production. WtE technology yields a double benefit: it minimizes the volume of waste while increasing the proportion of clean, renewable energy.

Indeed previous governments have also envisioned WtE in Ghana. But the projects conceived have not come to fruition.  The most recent example was the agreement signed in July 2015 between the Ministry of Local Government, on behalf of the Government of Ghana, and Armech Africa Limited to build an Integrated Waste Management System in Kpone, some 30 km from Accra.  The project was designed to receive all the waste generated in Accra, and, after extracting valuable recyclable goods, convert the remaining waste to electricity for the national grid. As the project proposal describes it,  “All waste is transferred to a Tunnel Bio-Reactor, a modularized above-ground landfill, which transforms outdated waste management by doing away with landfills and creating the cleanest bio-energy from waste”.  

So, why have perfectly laudable WtE initiatives failed to gain traction in Ghana, and what can the new government do differently to ensure a successful outcome?  Ghana could learn from the example of Mauritius. This Indian Ocean island country of 1.2 million people operates an integrated waste management system to rival the best in the world. According to the country’s Central Energy Board (CEB), “The Government of Mauritius’ energy policy encourages the use of renewable and clean energy to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and decrease greenhouse gas emissions; it aims to increase the use of renewable sources from 20% in 2016 to 35% by 2025 (…) The government has indicated that renewable energy will be an important aspect of the next budget, and it is currently developing a variety of plans in this field.”  Of the 20% generated from renewable sources, 16% comes from bagasse (sugarcane waste). 3 Landfill gas, hydro, solar and wind contribute the remaining 4%. With two WtE plants due to come on-stream in the second half of 2017, the Government hopes to generate 8% of national electricity output from waste (i.e. landfill gas) alone.  

There are a couple of points to note here.  First, the Government of Mauritius has a deliberate policy to reduce its carbon emissions by moving progressively towards renewable and clean energy.  Thus, its WtE initiatives fit into a clearly defined vision.  This is different from the situation in Ghana where such policy coherence and clarity are lacking. Second, the Government is putting its money where its mouth is.  Although the WtE and other renewable energy projects are private sector driven, the national budget allocates sufficient funds to ensure that projects promised are actually delivered. 

 

Dealing with plastic waste 

Ghana may not be amenable to a Rwanda-style zero plastic solution in the immediate term; a more deliberate approach is required. Sachet water is a major complicating factor.  Apart from providing jobs, sachet water offers other undeniable benefits.  Ghanaians are drinking more and cleaner water.  At funerals, weddings and other social events, water now predominates over beer and other beverages.  So, aside the obvious political considerations, there are economic, social and health aspects to consider.

So, what to do?  First, significantly increase recycling capacity. Despite the brave efforts of some NGOs and private sector entities, the proportion of plastic waste recycled is infinitesimal relative to its output. To increase the amount of plastic waste recycled, central government and city authorities should provide incentives, through tax relief and other policy measures, to induce existing plastic waste recyclers to significantly expand its capacity.  New players may be attracted to the industry with similar incentives.  Second, institute a system to collect plastic waste at source. In Accra, a good citizen wishing to dispose of a plastic sachet after quenching his or her thirst would be hard put to find a receptacle to dispose of it.  The placement of plastic-only receptacles in public places could do wonders. At the household level, the separation of plastic from other waste could facilitate recycling.

In the medium term, Government and city authorities should consider measures to drastically reduce the amount of plastic waste produced.  For sachet water, Government could, through tax incentives (and sanctions) decrease the proportion of sachet water relative to bottled water, which is easier to collect and recycle. A similar approach could be adopted for everything from shopping bags in supermarkets and malls to the ubiquitous and unsightly black plastic bags.  Upscale shops could introduce paper and reusable cloth bags to progressively replace plastic bags. “Disincentive taxes” for choosing plastic over cloth or paper could be introduced in supermarkets and malls, as pertains in some African countries such as Mauritius and South Africa. Plastic bags used to package food should be progressively replaced by reusable plastic dishes, which are more hygienic.

 

Draining the swamp:  

Decreasing the amount of plastic waste produced would no doubt reduce the plague of annual floods that afflicts Accra.  But it would not be enough.  The flooding cannot be resolved until the Odaw River and Korle Lagoon have been unclogged, drained and provided an outlet to the sea. Without an outlet, the open drains that feed the torpid pool back up even after a moderate rainfall, and spew their contents onto nearby streets, homes and markets. The sight is not pretty.  And the outcome is not healthy.

Resolving the drainage problem of Accra is a costly and long-term proposition that does not lend itself to quick-fix interventions.  City managers and planners are well aware of this.  Over the years, through successive administrations, a variety of projects, have been announced to dredge the Odaw/Korle swamp and de-silt the drains and gutters that deposit their effluvium into it.  One of the most significant efforts in recent years was the Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project (KLERP). However, like previous attempts, the project appears to be at a standstill. The question is, why are all these plans languishing in limbo? 

The answer is simple: they face serious socio-political complications. Over the past decades, large informal settlements, markets and other business have sprouted along the banks of the Odaw River and Korle Lagoon.  These include Korle Dudor, Adadinkpo, Old and New Fadama. The emergence of large human settlements and commercial activity has introduced a dimension beyond engineering and funding, which must be handled delicately. It calls for a vision of transformation of the water body, which encompasses resettlement and/or rebuilding of these communities.  

The case of Old Fadama (Sodom and Gomorrah), in particular seems to confound political leaders. This settlement, originally conceived as a temporary refuge for persons displaced by development or sporadic conflicts within Accra, has, through successive waves of settlement and resettlement (including the huge numbers displaced by Nanumba-Kokomba conflict in the Northern Region of Ghana in the 1990s), morphed into a veritable township sheltering over 100,000 souls. Sodom and Gomorrah is the classic slum – overcrowded, unsanitary, crime and disease-ridden, with zero to poor access to public utilities and social services.  Moreover, it is prone to inter-ethnic violence. The settlement is also the site of perhaps one of the largest e-waste dumpsites in the world, which youthful scavenge for the cables, wires and coils buried in the entrails of the discarded computers and printers..  This is a dangerous way to earn a living.  But the youth are not daunted; for many, it is the only way to earn a living. 

Clearly, these settlements must be “dealt with” before any comprehensive transformation of the Odaw-Korle channel can proceed. However, these communities are voter-rich, a factor not lost on politicians who might consider dislodging them. Besides, in Ghana’s hyper-partisan politics, opposition parties have been rumored to sabotage efforts to relocate these communities in order to curry their favor. Well-meaning NGO and human rights activists add another layer of complication. Their efforts to improve the deplorable living conditions and protect residents, particularly women and children, from abuse seem to reinforce the “squatters’ rights” mentality of residents.

While most experts agree that unclogging and draining the Odaw-Korle swamp is essential to resolving Accra’s flooding problem, it must go hand-in-hand with other ancillary works.  Three main tributaries feed the Odaw and Korle with, namely the Nima, Kaneshie and Agbogbloshie drains.  These colonial-era open super-drains have become dumping grounds for solid and liquid waste. They must be covered.  So long as they remain open receptacles for waste, they will continue to contaminate the Odaw and Korle.  A medium term goal should be to eliminate open drains in the capital.  As a first step, all new city roads must be constructed with covered drains. In addition to staunching the flow of plastic and other waste into the Odaw and Korle, this will minimize a major environmental nuisance and health hazard.

Yes, We Can

Despite these multiple challenges, Accra is better equipped than most African cities to overcome its waste management predicament.  Ghana has substantial technical knowledge and capacity in the field.  The country’s leading waste management company, Zoomlion, is arguably the only genuine multinational waste management company in Africa.  Zoomlion won and successfully executed contracts to clean up stadia in Angola, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa during the 2008 and 2010 Cup Africa Cup of Nations and FIFA World Cup tournaments in those countries.  Excluding Ghana, the company currently operates in six African countries: Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo and Zambia.  In Ghana, it operates in towns and cities all across the country.  The company has introduced several innovations, including the manufacture and deployment of tricycles to facilitate waste collection from hard-to-access communities and crowded markets. 

Zoomlion also initiated the Accra Compost and Recycle Plant (AcARP). Designed with an initial capacity to treat up to 600 tons of waste per day, AcARP is a public-private partnership involving several government, NGO and private sector entities.

But Zooomloin’s most forward-looking venture is the Africa Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management established in partnership with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology(KNUST).  The institute aims to develop local and regional capacities in waste management as well deepen the knowledge and research base to underpin policy formulation and planning. 

The Africa Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management campus at Madina, Accra

A noteworthy, albeit smaller, operator is J Stanley Owusu and Co (JSO).  JSO touts itself as a pioneer in waste management in Ghana, as it incorporated the first full-fledged waste management company in 1970. In addition to household and community waste collection and management, JSO builds and manages waste transfer stations and landfills. Through its two subsidiary companies, the Accra Liquid and Solid Waste Management Company and the Kumasi Waste Management Company, JSO is embarking on waste-to-energy projects in the two cities. 

There are several other operators in Accra and the other major cities in the country. Thus, Ghana does indeed have the real and latent capacity to clean up its filth. 

 

In conclusion…

Any visitor to Ghana in the early months of 2017 would be struck by the pro-environment fervor that has gripped the country.  Citizens inundate the media with expressions of outrage at the wanton pillage of our environmental treasury and the accumulation of filth in our cities.  Politicians, pastors, chiefs and activists have all joined the chorus.  While a social media campaign to stop illegal mining has gotten the most attention, public agitation against urban filth has also gained traction 

The timing of this campaign is not accident. The new government inaugurated in January 2017 has signaled a commitment to tackle environmental challenges.  In his State of the Nation address on 21 February the President underscored environmental conservation and sanitation as a key priorities of his government.  He has publicly stated him goal of making Accra the cleanest city in Africa by the end of his first term in 2020. Two new ministries have been created, which focus on sanitation - the Ministries of Water and Sanitation, and Zongo and Inner City Development.  The newly appointed Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation is an eminent scientist celebrated for his competence and passion. The Greater Accra Regional Minister and the Mayor of Accra have both prioritized waste management.  

Through their agitation, Ghanaians are alerting the government that they have noted, and welcome, these moves. They want a leadership that will rid their capital city of filth. For them, that is good governance. 

Photo: An overflowing container bin  in Accra (Source: Fei Baffoe, B, Busch, G, 2009: Solid Waste Management in Accra, Ghana, Anaerobic Digestion as an Appropriate Option prior to Landfilling, Journal of Solid Waste Technology and Management, 35(2):66-67