Last week the Ghana Water Company has announced to increase water tariffs by 0,8%. This comes in a time when the demand for water in Accra exceeds supply by roughly two thirds, and the accelerating inflation rate is putting a huge burden on consumers. What makes provision of water to Accra so expensive is not only the loss of revenue to leakages, illegal abstraction, and further causes stated by the company’s public relations office: at the Weija dam and treatment plant I learn from the operations manager that the water extracted from the dam, currently serving major parts of Greater Accra, is highly contaminated with human and agricultural waste as well as from mining activities. Enormous amounts of chemicals are used in the treatment process, imported from Europe and Asia, and thus traded in foreign currency. While the supply gaps are hoped to be closed by next year as a result of infrastructure expansion projects, maintaining the infrastructure without raising consumer prices will remain a challenge.
Houses around the Densu delta have been in water for the past three weeks now, after continuous spillage at the Weija dam, and as more rain is coming down almost every day. While many residents report that the present situation is one they face annually, in some areas it is assumed that the June floods have been exceptional (a 1 in 10 years event), and therefore do not require any further preventive strategies to be taken. In both the more and the less frequently affected areas, even while standing with their feet in the water, residents object to the idea of resettling to a less flood-prone site. The reasons for staying are manifold (affordable rent, investment made into land and construction, social network, access to work place,and others that I can only speculate about), yet in the eyes of government officials in charge of public health and disaster risk management they do not justify the risks the dwellers are creating for themselves and others by living in a flood prone area. When assessing the damage done by the recent floods on a field trip, NADMO, Health Service and municipal representatives get into passionate discussions of when and how to demolish and safely resettle the residents of these places. Given the sheer size of settlements in the flood plains, the competitive land market in and around Accra, and the disapproval of such plans among residents, a viable solution is far from being found.
Land competition is an issue difficult to ignore when assessing environmental risks in Accra. Red-coloured inscriptions reading ‘Remove now’, ‘Stop building - produce Permit’ or ‘Land not for sale’ cover the walls of all kinds of structures across the city. They indicate a general incapacity of city authorities when it comes to managing urban and peri-urban lands and their use. Reasons for and consequences of the obscure situation of land ownership and acquisition have been discussed in the literature (e.g. Owusu, G. 2008), but have barely been fought on the ground, as a look at the Densu Delta region shows.
In Gleefe, a Ga fishing village at the outfall of the Densu Delta, a resident reports of natives migrating to rural communities further West, where they can afford land, while renting out their property in Gleefe. They in turn make space for migrants from across Ghana including Accra, who are likewise in search of access to cheap housing. During my visits I meet Ewe families who have come from the Volta region generations ago, migrants who have come more recently from the Volta region, from Ashanti region, from Chorkor, another fishing village in Accra. The more people I speak to, the more confused I am about the role of the various chiefs I am presented to, and about authorities and practices in land transactions and land management. Plots to be sold and developed are reportedly defined by the chief by “throwing a stone” – as the stone tends to fall in swampy areas, the purchaser then fills up his plot with gravel to enable development. A house owner recalls: “I didn’t know the plot was at risk from flooding. Few days after we had purchased the land, the rain came and the whole place was flooded. So we decided to fill it, not to get water in the house”. Roughly half of the community land of Gleefe is reclaimed from the lagoon.
Land speculation likewise drives environmental change in Tetegu, an Ewe fishing village upstream of Gleefe that has seen the rapid sell of plots and development of middle income housing in the middle of the natural protected area (RAMSAR site) over the past decade. With the development infrastructure is coming in, including flood risk prevention measures. As an ever larger portion of the wetlands is turned into plots for sale however, the natural retention function is severely damaged, putting surrounding communities at risk. I hear hints of irony and pride when a house owner compares her situation with what she has seen in other risk-prone areas: “I think we are in heaven!”
The authorities I speak to unanimously agree that planning laws and regulations need to be enforced more rigorously to solve the situation. But when and how, without destroying the livelihoods of thousands of people who have come to make a living, and many more to come?
Heavy rain and thunderstorms came down on the night of May 19, resulting in power outages at our house in Kotobabi Down. Driving through the city the next day, I noticed partial flooding of some streets, but no more severe impacts. The NADMO officer of a municipality in western Accra noted with apparent relief that he hadn’t spent a sleepless night, which is what officers of his division usually do when it rains as hard.
Later on I learned that in other parts of the city roofs had flown off, trees been uprooted, and street lamps knocked over. Only a week later, the next (much smaller) storm passed the city. Signposts that had already looked shaky after the first storm now collapsed onto pavements and streets. I can only guess about the damage done to the many shack dwellers of the city, and I am ashamed of my own ignorance of the impacts so close by that don’t make their way to the newspapers.
Residents in Gleefe and Tetegu use stepstones to cross inundated areas and fill up construction sites with sand to prevent flooding within their houses. In Gleefe, winning sand directly from the beach is a cheaper alternative to buying gravel for filling. Sand winning however is a major cause of coastal erosion in the community.
The commute from northern Accra to Gleeefe is a long one, with three different local buses, or trotros as they are called here, to board. At Circle, one of Accra’s main interchanges, narrow pathways in between cramped stalls selling anything from iphones to soap link the stations of the different bus routes. There are no maps or signs explaining the trotro routes, so you better know your way, or ask around.
The 'mate', responsible for filling up the bus and collecting fares, will call out the final destination and main stops in reverse order. The bus will not leave until it is full, which - depending on the time of the day - can take anything between 2 and 40 minutes. The one going to Dansoman is a large passenger bus (unlike most trotros which are refurbished minibuses imported from Europe), with additional folding seats in the middle of each row to make use of the aisle space. The waiting time passes quickly, thanks to the enthusiastic preaching of a young man who will collect tips from the passengers as soon as the last passenger has boarded, and to the expansive offer of items (snacks, drinks, handkerchiefs) passing by the windows in baskets carried on women’s heads.
The route takes us through the usually congested traffic on Ring Road, followed by side streets in middle-income residential areas with front shops. In times of high congestion, the driver takes an alternative route, upon consent with the passengers. As always, he communicates through the mate. I miss most of the conversations on the bus as they take place in Twi. I can rely on the help of other passengers and the mate for anything that concerns me as most people do speak English fluently, but I am also very grateful for translation of less relevant conversations by my research assistant which makes me feel less awkward when the rest of the bus is engaged in sharing jokes.
The minibus from Dansoman to Gleefe fills up quickly; it is a short ride. The houses framing the road gradually become smaller and shops fewer; but the area looks by far not as impoverished as I would have imagined from the literature. School children, women with babies on their backs, men and women in business clothing and hawkers get off at Gleefe last stop where they quickly dissolve into the community.
The media reports that a “Health crisis looms as major landfill sites in Accra are shut down”, and consequently waste management companies have stopped serving several neighbourhoods during the past weeks. This is particularly concerning as thunderstorms with heavy rainfall have been forecasted for the next days, which are bound to sweep the waste into open drains, blocking them and thus hindering run-off in the affected communities.
Characteristic for doing research in Ghana, I think, is that opportunities come up unexpectedly. Within one day I found a student research assistant who managed to organise a visit to Gleefe for the next day. I had very pleasant chats with the community’s Assembly Man, the Elder, and the Mankrado and Acting Chief of the Sempe stool. All of them promised support for my research in the regularly flood-stricken community at the Densu Delta outfall.
Two weeks have passed since I arrived in Accra to take up my field research on patterns of flood risk and adaptive capacity in the Densu Delta. I have spent the time establishing contacts to our partners at University of Ghana and to key organisations, and collecting background information from them. The university’s bookshop offers a number of treasures on social and ecological processes in Ghana, and I have made the first purchases for the WaterPower library. Two heavy rainstorms have already given me an idea of what triggers urban flooding in the rainy season – luckily these pre-seasonal rainfalls were too short to cause any incident. Even when not being new to Accra, the time needed to settle for several months is easily underestimated – learning the web of trotro (local buses‘) routes for instance appears like a never-ending story to me. Nevertheless, I feel now settled, and can’t wait to start interviewing and mapping in and around the Densu Delta. Meanwhile, the WaterPower team in Berlin is constantly growing. I am looking forward to coming to a house full of early career experts on urban water after my research stay.