Tag Archives: Water

A story on every corner

My first full-time gig as a reporter was a wonderful summer in a small city in eastern Canada. Fredericton is the capital of New Brunswick. It’s home to the provincial legislative assembly and two universities. The problem for news-gatherers is that those three institutions are effectively in hibernation for the summer months. Between May and September, there isn’t much in the way of sensational news in Fredericton. I remember a day where the cameraman and I drove around looking for news. After a few hours of searching, we did a story about a small rise in the number of visitors to a provincial park.

The JHR team and bike drivers on the way to Yeliboya Island.

Developed countries like Canada can be referred to as “developed”, because not much happens. Citizens are safe, healthy, secure and, for the most part, have their human rights respected. Here in Sierra Leone that is not the case. Before I came here, a former JHR trainer told me that “there is a story on every corner.” I think of that phrase almost every day.

Kambia town is just a few kilometres from the Guinean border

Kambia town is just a few kilometres from the Guinean border

For the last reporting trip of my time in Sierra Leone, we decided to head north to Kambia District to see what sort of stories we could find. I mentored two journalists from Africa Young Voices Radio, with help from JHR Local Trainer Kevin Lamdo and Kambia journalist Gibril Gottor (recently-crowned Male Media Professional of the Year). Our plan was to do two stories.

We started with a story on unsafe abortion. Abortion is illegal in almost all cases in Sierra Leone. The current legislation dates back to 1861. A recent report showed that, in 2011, 1,622 women went to hospital as a result of the effects of illegal abortions. It estimates that almost 2% of abortions resulted in the mother’s death. We spoke to a community doctor, nurses, a pastor, and after some searching we finally a woman who said she had had an abortion, performed illegally in a local hospital. Story #1.

Gibril Gottor. Sierra Leone's Male Media Professional of the Year. The border police don't like him much.

Gibril Gottor. Sierra Leone’s Male Media Professional of the Year. The border police don’t like him much.

Hanging toilets on Yeliboya Island drop waste straight into the river

Hanging toilets on Yeliboya Island drop waste straight into the river.

On the way to Yeliboya, we had stopped at the village of Kychom to hire our boat. While waiting, we noticed hundreds of empty water packets sitting in the sun. These ubiquitous 500ml bags of water are the cheapest way to get purified drinking water. The packets litter the streets and clog-up drains across the country, contributing to sewers flooding the streets in rainy season. AYV reporter Princetta Williams asked about the packets. A woman told her she was drying them to send them north to Guinea for recycling. Recycling programmes are almost unknown in Sierra Leone. Story #3.

Water packets drying in the sun at Kychom, Kambia District

Water packets drying in the sun at Kychom, Kambia District

When we got back to Kambia town we noticed new sets of clean water taps around the town. They were all installed with the help of the Japanese government in February. But they had all been turned off for the past month. It turned out that very few local home-owners were paying the monthly fee of Le15,000 ($3.50). The local water company engineer said that all he needed was $50 of fuel per day, to pump the water and restore supply. He also said the Ministry of Water was supposed to inject $17,500 into the project in February. The money came two months late, and was only $9,300 – enough to pay-off some of the fuel debts. In the past month, locals have been going to old water sources that are no longer chlorinated. Story #4.

Africa Young Voices Journalist Diana Coker checks the closed taps in Kambia

Africa Young Voices Journalist Diana Coker checks the closed taps in Kambia

On our second evening in Kambia, we decided to head north to the Guinean border. After a colourful exchange with border police (Gibril said they don’t like him very much), we were allowed to walk into Guinea. The border is protected by four rope barriers. But just off to the side is a modern border complex, with barriers, offices and an inspection zone. It was closed. We wandered across. A sign highlighted the grand opening of the Joint Customs Border Post on June 2nd – just days away, I thought. I read it again, June 2nd… 2012. The project was funded by the National Revenue Agency and has sat empty for a year. Story #5.

Nothing seems to surprise Sierra Leonean journalists. Almost everything still surprises me here. When I leave Sierra Leone this month, I will miss it desperately. I fear that life will be too boring back in the developed world. The thing is, so many Sierra Leoneans long for the day when life here is as quite, as healthy and as uneventful as places like Fredericton.

The one-year-old Joint Customs Border Post has not yet been used

The one-year-old Joint Customs Border Post has not yet been used

 

Rain in Liberia and how weather becomes an issue of health, and even life or death

During Liberia's wet season, neighbourhood wells can become contaminated with waterborne diseases, to which children are especially susceptible. Travis Lupick photo.

Living in Liberia through the country’s wet season, I find myself nostalgic for the relatively dry climate of Vancouver. To witness a true West African monsoon is to realize that western Canada is seldom inconvenienced by more than a drizzle.

A couple of statistics to explain my point: downtown Vancouver receives an average annual rainfall of 1,590 millimetres. Monrovia: 5,300 millimetres. The capital of Liberia sees almost as much rain during the month of July (1,150 millimetres) as Vancouver does in an entire year.

For many in Liberia, weather is an issue of health, and even life or death.

On a recent visit to Monrovia’s West Point neighbourhood, Thomas Tweh, head of the community’s sanitation committee, explained the problems that come with the wet season.

“When it rains, the water flows through the streets and into the wells,” he said. “Water with feces goes into the wells.”

During seasonal flooding, wells with openings at ground level are easily contaminated with waterborne diseases such as dysentery. Travis Lupick photo.

Lacking access to the city’s water supply, Tweh estimated that West Point relies on wells for 95 percent of its water needs.

He said that residents know that water from the wells is not safe to drink. But for many, the cost of clean drinking water leaves them no choice.

“And the little ones, they drink the well water unknowingly,” Tweh added. “This is how they become sick with waterborne diseases.”

West Point is one of the poorest areas of Monrovia. A July 2012 report on the neighborhood found that 85 percent of households live on less than 4,000 Liberian dollars (US$57) a month (and many, significantly less than that). That same study reported that water pollution is the primary community concern. West Point sits at sea level, and so is especially prone to flooding.

Tweh listed dysentery and typhoid as seasonal problems that come with the rains every year.

“We are talking about diseases like cholera,” he continued. “Just three weeks ago, a child fell sick from some water. We tried rehydration. But within a number of hours, he was gone.”

In Clara Town, another low-income neighborhood in Monrovia, David Jacobs, chairperson for the community, relayed complaints similar to those of Tweh.

“The drainage ditches around this community are very, very small,” Jacobs noted. “They were not meant for this many people,” which is he estimates is around 48,000.

In Clara Town, Monrovia, a lack of options for waste disposal has resulted in drainage ditches meant clogged with waste. Travis Lupick photo.

Touring Clara Town, Jacobs pointed to open waterways clogged by piles of garbage. He explained that the community lacks a proper facility for waste, and so people use the drainage ditches as disposal sites.

“When the rains come, the water just goes everywhere,” Jacobs lamented. “Sanitation is the issue here. You get cases of diarrhea.”

Back in West Point, Tweh presented a simple plan that could drastically improve the quality of the community’s well water.

He wants to strip existing wells of their metal linings— which are porous and rust— and replace them with more durable, heavy plastic linings. In addition, Tweh continued, wells with openings at ground level should be raised with concrete barriers so that their entry points always remain above flood levels.

Tweh has identified 50 specific wells for such renovations, and estimates that the cost of each upgrade would be US$100, or US$5,000 to significantly improve the quality of sanitation for a community of some 72,000 people.

Tweh maintained that funding remains the only barrier to his plan. He said that he’s approached several NGOs active in Monrovia, “but everybody is holding on to their money.”

Thomas Tweh, head of sanitation for Monrovia's West Point community, says he has a practical plan to improve access to clean water in the area. Travis Lupick photo.

Jacobs similarly has ideas about how to address the sanitation problems he described in Clara Town. Drainage ditches should be widened, he suggested. And open sewers should be covered to prevent people from using them for the disposal of garbage.

But again, there’s a lack of funding.

Both West Point and Clara Town are technically informal settlements— slums, as they are commonly referred. And so while the City does do business with them and is beginning to provide the most basic of social services, neither community is a high priority for the Mayor’s office.

During our interview, Tweh repeatedly returned to the story of the young boy who succumbed to dysentery. He emphasized how easily the death could have been prevented.

“They tried to take the child to the health facility,” Tweh recounted. “But at the end of the day, the child was lost.”

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

Dumping grounds fast becoming residential areas – but without the clean-up

By Nina Lex, Timothy Banda, Arthur Cola Mvuta, and Glitter Ndovi

A garbage filled river outside Blantyre’s main market. Photo by Nina Lex.

As Malawi becomes one of the world’s fastest urbanizing countries, more and more Malawians are being pushed off their land and forced to live in areas used as dumping sites, known as “kuntaya”.

Although one of the least urbanized nations in Africa and with a population of just 13 million, the United Nations forecasts that by 2050 this number will double, forcing many rural dwellers into urban settlements in search of better economical opportunities.

Only 20 per cent of the national population lives in urban areas; however, since 1998, the urban population has increased by 63 per cent. The government has attempted to set up small towns, such as the informal settlement of Misesa located between Limbe and Blantyre, to divert rural-urban migrants away from major cities. But these areas have grown into slums, according to a report by Mtafu Zeleza Manda, an expert in urbanization who helped establish the Malawi Urban Forum and the Malawi Award for Human Settlements.

According to Manda’s report, poor access to water and sanitation means that dumping areas and slums pose numerous health concerns for residents, as they become a breeding place for pests and disease.

A survey done by the Ministry of Health shows that these areas are at high risk for diarrhea, especially in the rainy season because drinking water is often contaminated by garbage.

Water and sanitation in urban areas in Malawi, where over 60 per cent of the population lives in informal settlements – also known as squatter settlements or slums – falls under the public health department. However, government agencies are reluctant to provide basic services to informal settlements because they feel that this would encourage their development or growth.

According to the Blantyre City Council public relations officer, Luzana Khanga, dumping sites are located away from areas where people live so they can be easily monitored.

“We are trying as much as we can to help the people living in these areas, because cleaner conditions where people live will decrease cases of diseases in hospitals, thereby reducing the money spent on buying drugs,” says Khanga.

Khanga claims that people move into these areas illegally putting themselves in danger because of toxic garbage and water-borne disease. However, residents of these areas argue that they have been forced to move to dumping zones because of a shortage of land to settle on.

Students also miss school because of poor sanitation in schools.  According to The Nation newspaper, in the Mchesi area of the country’s capital city, Lilongwe, two schools remained without toilets for five years, causing student to use the nearby woods, which subsequently led to a high drop-out rate among female pupils.

Only 10 per cent of Blantyre’s, Malawi’s commercial center, population live in homes connected to sewers lines. While only 8 per cent of Lilongwe’s population is connected to sewers, the country’s third largest city, Mzuzu, has no sewer lines.

In 2008, the then Foreign Affairs Minister Joyce Banda said that Malawi had already surpassed the Millennium Development Goals target related to water and sanitation, which had aimed to provide 74 per cent of Malawian with access to safe drinking water by 2015. As of 2006, 75 per cent of Malawi already had access to clean water.

“At this rate our projection is that by 2015 about 94 percent of the population will have access to sustainable water sources,” Banda said.

However, contained within his report, Manda argues that Malawi has a long way to go in order to meet the MDG definition: to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

Dry taps and lost hope: Water politics in Accra

In some parts of Accra, access to water is spotty—a reality for millions of around the world. Photo by Jenny Vaughan.

My heart sinks as I turn the kitchen tap at my home in Accra. It shrieks and nothing comes out.  It’s empty.

For two weeks, my housemates and I have been living without water. We survive on buckets our landlady brings us, and I mentally calculate the amount of water needed for simple tasks.

Shower: one bucket.

Washing my hands: one yogurt container.

Laundry: well, that’s out of the question for now.

I have never obsessed so much about water. Where it comes from. Where I’m going to get it. How much is left. How long it might be until we have it again. These concerns will be on the minds of many today, World Water Day.

Still, many cope with water problems far worse than mine in Accra. Water is rationed here, so your tank can overflow one day, and be dry the next.

I recently travelled to a Madina, a community in Accraand met Abdul Raheem Ninche, who says he has not had regular running water for more than a decade.

He installed a well in his yard to cope. He cleans with this water, but cannot do much else.

He spends about five cedis a day ($3 CAD) on clean drinking and bathing water for the nine people in his home, a steep cost for him.

Ninche and his neighbours complained to the water company, but he says nothing came of it. Now, he’s losing hope his situation will improve.

“We are neglected,” he tells me. “I feel people at the top don’t care about people here.”

Water politics are complicated in Madina.

A local civic coalition has accused the water operator, Aqua Vitens Rand Limited (AVRL), of running a new water line through Madina but not servicing the area, a claim AVRL denies.

AVRL says some residents illegally siphon water to sell to their neighbours, an accusation the civic coalition says is untrue.

Stanley Martey, a communications manager with the company, says Madina is at the end of a couple of water distribution lines, and rapid development in the area has compounded the problem.

“Development has been so, so fast that almost all the water is consumed before it gets to Madina,” Martey says.

He points to long-term plans to improve distribution, like sinking more boreholes and a multi-million dollar water treatment plant expansion plan. But a big-ticket item like that could take years.

Until then, there are no easy answers for people living in Madina.

“Most of us who work with the water company also live in the community and we also face the same challenges, so we know how bad the situation is,” says Martey. “So we are sorry, but under the circumstances, there is nothing we can do.”

Some are resourceful, making the best out of a bad situation. Eunice Lardjerh Dowuona has been buying water from tankers and selling it in the area for 20 years.

Her livelihood is based on the shortage, but she says she wants change.

“I’m benefitting, but if the tap is on, I like it,” she says.

Back at my house, the water eventually comes back on after a two-week dry spell.

But we know it could run out again at any moment. Now, my housemates and I fill extra buckets when the water is flowing—just in case. We do small loads of laundry as frequently as possible. We monitor the water tank fanatically.

It’s a state of constant planning, but still, I realize we’re lucky water flows at all.

Listen to a radio report about access to water in Accra by Citi FM’s Umaru Sanda Amadu and jhr’s Angela Johnston: Access to water in Accra