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Saltwater poisoning threatens Ghana
How is sea level rise poisoning Ghana?

Written by Will

Popular images of sea level change are flooded houses, displaced people and eroded landscapes.  In Western Ghana, a sinister new picture is emerging: salt water poisoning.  Rising sea levels have polluted the water sources of thousands of inhabitants, infecting their drinking water and creating an unprecedented rise in salt-related health problems.

The head of water quality at the Ghana Water Company has admitted providing drinking water with almost twice the recommended salt levels, whilst the medical director of the regional hospital has reported a 70% increase in strokes, hypertension and heart problems.

Largely ignored in the Ghanaian press, this is a candid portrait of environmental abuse and political mismanagement set to mushroom if current climatic trends continue. 

A town on the edge

The focus of the problem is Ada, a town of 20 000 people perched on the estuary of the Volta river.  Throughout history the river has provided for and protected the people.  Its seasonal floods replenished the floodplain and its powerful flow prevented sea water from travelling up the estuary.

However in the 1950s, the Volta underwent a profound change when the Akosombo dam was constructed.  Much of the river’s drainage basin was flooded to create Lake Volta and the flow of water became controlled by the corporate priorities of the Ghana Water Company.  Suddenly Ada’s umbilical chord to the interior was cut.

Over the last fifty years, mismanagement of this river system has caused a reduction in water reaching Ada, allowing sea water to encroach upstream and pollute the purification plants supplying the town’s fresh water.  Writing in 2007, Dr Philip Narh of Dangme East District Hospital warned that if this problem was left unchecked, it could soon affect the whole 130 000 inhabitants of the South Tongu district.  The situation has been created by three major environmental changes.

Rampant deforestation

Thick forest once covered northern Ghana, stretching from the Togo border to Tamale.  Rampant deforestation by farmers and charcoal burners has left much of the land barren.  The impact on the Volta drainage system has been profound. “Deforestation has completely removed the canopy layer.  This layer slowed the rate of run off and supplied the spring source” says Evans Balaara, head of water quality at the Ghana Water Company. “Evaporation rates have also increased as there is no vegetation to provide shade. As a result far less water is now reaching the lake in a normal year than when I was young.”  Increasingly erratic rainfall patterns (drought 2007-08, severe flooding 2009) have also added to the problem and in 2006 the only dam in the Damongo (northern) region had to be shut down when its lake dried up. With less water reaching the lake, the ball is set rolling for major problems downstream.

Rising urbanisation

Accra is the 32nd fastest growing city in the world, expanding at a rate of 3% per year.  Rural-urban migration - particularly from the northern regions - has been a catalyst for this growth.  This has put huge pressure on the urban infrastructure.  “The infrastructure cannot keep pace with this increase” says Mr Balaara.  “At the moment Ghana Water Company cannot meet the demand from the city.  We have to do expansion, but the expansion money is not available yet.”  The problem does not lie in the amount of water available, but in the piping and purification system. The pipes are too narrow and the treatment plants too small to process the millions of gallons of water used by the city every day. 

Looking to the future Mr Balaara says that the government’s priority is to increase extraction from the lake by building new plants and installing wider pipes.  The knock on effect of this is a further reduction in the amount of water trickling down to Ada. Combining this with reduced water inputs, the town’s future looks increasingly bleak.

The rising tide

With the supply of fresh water reaching Ada decreasing, salt water has been able to encroach further upstream.  This has been magnified by high spring tides, whose waters have reached Ghana Water Company’s purification plant at Ada. “we have results from Ada when there is a spring tide.  The salt levels get up to 350mg per litre, 150mg in excess of our limit of 200mg per litre.”  The medical consequences of this have been dramatic.  Dr Philip Narh confirmed that a higher number of deaths in the area are caused by hypertension and other heart related diseases.  “2.7% of Ada residents are suffering from chronic heart related diseases and this will increase dramatically in the future.”

What is the government planning to do about this?  Nothing.

Our hands are tied

Ghana Water Company has no solution to this problem. There are no facilities for desalinising contaminated water at Ada. Replacing the current purification plant with a desalinisation plant is “too capital intensive” to merit consideration.  “Our only option is to shut the water purification plant down.  But we have no back up supply.”

If the purification plant is shut down, then residents will be forced to use hand-dug wells for their water.  These are found further downstream from the purification plant and Ghana water “does not monitor the quality of these sources.” Ada it seems is to be sacrificed.

When you frame this within climate scientists predictions of a one metre sea level rise in the next 100 years the future looks grim. Mr Balaara conceded “If sea level change happens, things will become much worse and we are likely to lose Ada.  The buildings will go and the whole land will go.  At the moment we don’t have the money to do anything about this.”

The circle of life

Whilst it is easy to criticise the government in its handling of the situation, finding a longer-term solution remains a challenge.  An obvious stop gap is to relocate the purification plant further upstream.  However this only buys time.

As long as the demand for water from Accra keeps growing Ada’s future remains bleak.  The challenge is to find a way to increase the flow of water into the lake and reduce the rampant rate of rural-urban migration to Accra. Putting it another way, to manage the remaining forest (and plant new forest) in a sustainable manner and increase rural capacity to prevent people leaving for the cities.

The options here are much wider.  Possible REDD funding could provide an incentive for forest conservation (see Tim’s case study here), whilst a number of other West African countries have small scale projects that increase rural capacity without endangering local resources.  One of these is run by Environmental Foundation for Africa, focussing on sustainable forest management.  Renewable forest products – bamboo, raffia, cane – are harvested to construct furniture and baskets that are be sold at local market, whilst the hardwoods and canopy layer remain untouched.  Sustainability is a vital element to prevent the exhaustion of opportunities that often leads to rural-urban migration.

The fate of Lot’s wife

The story of Ada is a depressingly familiar tale of environmental mismanagement, whose innocent victims are found hundreds of miles from the cause of the problem and whose culprits act out of ignorance or greed.  If nobody confronts this then Ada will be swallowed by the sea. But when the first buildings tumble into the ocean, they will tumble on a land that has been desertified by the salt. Spring tides and storm surges will have forced salt water further up the Volta estuary.  The medical bills at Dangme district hospital will have climbed and life expectancy will have plummeted. Fields will have been sterilised by high salinity irrigation water and livestock killed off by contaminated drinking water.  The population will have either perished or migrated to Accra, perpetuating the vicious cycle that underlies this problem. Like the biblical tale of Lot’s wife, if we fail to heed the warnings of mightier forces, all will soon be turned to salt.

In Ada, sea level did not begin with beach erosion or flooding, it began when the first person turned on their tap to taste the salty solution infecting their waterways.


For photos of Ghana see here.

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Salt water poisoning threatens Ghana

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