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What do we do with water?

BY: Godfrey Baidoo-Tsibu

Water, like the air we breathe, is among the freest commodities on earth, gauging by the fact that the natural phenomena of water cycles allow water, held in liquid form to evaporate into the atmosphere, to condense to form rain which returns to water the earth freely again.

The earth surface is covered by about 71% of water in the form of marine waters (oceans and lagoons), freshwater lakes and rivers, and also in aquifers in the soil crust, as well as ice held in the temperate Arctic and Antarctic zones, and high altitudes. To ensure their survival, living organisms also consist of high amounts of water held in living cells; the human body is comprised of about 60% water.

Despite the apparent easy occurrence of water or its availability, accessibility to clean, fresh and potable water can be challenging in some environments such as deserts, and during dry conditions in areas which generally have high occurrence of water, and even in poorly-resourced human habitations. Water serves as the natural habitat for aquatic fauna and flora, including amphibious creatures, and for those creatures that are even typically terrestrial (living on land) or arboreal (living in trees), they would seek water for refreshment and cooling as and when the need arises.

Ghana has a coastline of 550km and land mass of 238,533 square kilometers, of which 11,000 square kilometers is covered by water. Ghana also lays claim to an Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) of 225,000 square kilometers, (an area almost equal in size to the land space). Ghana’s several freshwater bodies include the Volta Lake and River system, Pra River, Ankobra River, Tano River, Oti River, Densu River and a naturally formed Bosomtwe lake. Ghana also has abundant groundwater held in aquifers.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda aims at ensuring that people partner peacefully for a prosperous planet. For that matter the strong linkage between SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 14 (Life Below Water), and SDG 15 (Life on Land), cannot be underestimated if the services and benefits of these resources and environments could be optimally derived and utilized sustainably.

It is for this reason that the emerging concept, Blue Economy, which is the sustainable use of ocean/freshwater resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean/freshwater ecosystem health, becomes important. Blue Economy therefore encourages better stewardship of our ocean/freshwater reservoirs because they hold great potential for sustainable human development.

So, the important and critical question is, what might we do with all the water resources Ghana is endowed with? Do we drink it, swim in it, travel by it, explore it, exploit its resources, or use it as sump for liquid and solid waste?

Water for Life

Fundamentally, water sustains both plant and animal life. The presence of water is conspicuously noticed by the availability of plant life and animal life. Deserts are the way they are (sparse, deserted), because of the lack of or inadequacy of water. Water therefore supports forests, wildlife, fisheries and agriculture, which in turn supports human cultures, livelihoods, industry and commerce.

Various human activities, such as agriculture, human settlements and mining are constantly removing vegetative cover and topsoil, and opening up water sources to high temperatures and winds which accelerate evaporation and silting of water systems, rendering them incapable of holding large volumes of water or drainage of the waters.

Some of these human activities utilize toxic chemicals to control weeds, pests and diseases for improved yields in agriculture, and also for releasing minerals from ores in mining, which in turn contaminate and pollute the water bodies rendering them less potable for consumption, uninhabitable to aquatic organisms, and even unsuitable for agricultural and industrial purposes.

Many important rivers in Ghana have been rendered unusable for many human activities because of unregulated mining activities (galamsey). The Ghana Water Company temporarily stopped operating some water treatment plants in 2016 because of high levels of turbidity and contamination, and in early 2020, the company had given caution that residents in the Western Region of Ghana risk water shortage because of continuous illegal small scale mining in the Pra river.

Because of the contamination of important rivers and ground water, factory-bagged and bottled water have become the main sources of drinking water for the majority of Ghanaian citizens irrespective of their economic status. The environmental impact of the plastic containers used for bagging and bottling of drinking water is overwhelming the land and water environments as they are dumped indiscriminately after use and eventually end up in drains, rivers and the sea.

The Forest Factor

Ghana used to depend primarily on the Volta Lake for its electric energy supplies until about two decades ago when dwindling river flow and volumes resulting from low and intermittent rainfalls, attributable to climatic effects, led to a shift to thermal sources. Currently hydroelectric power from three dams, Akosombo, Kpong and Bui contribute only about 38% towards electricity generation in Ghana.

As indicated previously, the water cycle ensures that water on earth rises as water vapour and condenses to fall as rain to water the earth again. The water cycle is facilitated by green vegetation, especially trees, which draw soil water through their root systems and through xylem tissues into the leaves and eventually, release the water through stomata into the atmosphere by a process called transpiration. What this means is that where there are forests, rainfall is facilitated and abundant; whereas in other less-forested climes, rainfall is sparse, and the environment, dry.

“Life on Land,” under SDG15 implies that if forests are decimated as is currently ongoing indiscriminately in many areas in Ghana and other places around the world, rivers naturally die. When forests are destroyed, it affects all animal life that depends on it, including humans. When the tree cover is lost, all the important ecological services such as providing a shield against rain and wind during storms, absorption of ozone-depleting carbon dioxide (CO2), release of life-vitalising oxygen (O2), serving as habitat and substrate for other plant forms, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals, are completely lost.

The loss of forest cover therefore contribute to soil erosion and siltation of riverbeds as the land becomes exposed to the direct forces of wind and precipitation. In addition, when riverbeds are silted they cannot hold large volumes of water adequately and whenever there is rain, it leads to flooding with its adverse effects on life and property.

Water flowing from degraded forests also tend to be turbid, affecting fisheries productivity and sustainability, and also less-feasible for irrigation, hydroelectric power generation and uneconomical for production of potable water. Many small streams and rivers which feed the bigger rivers have been lost as a result of deforestation whereas the bigger rivers have been rendered prone to the two evils of flooding during the rainy season and drying-up during dry periods.

It is therefore important that deforestation is discouraged, whereas tree planting and afforestation programmes are encouraged to restore the forests and their ecological services.

Eco-Tourism

The potential for water tourism is as massive as the water bodies available in the country themselves, except that this is largely undiscovered and underexploited. A visit to Nzulezu, the Boti and Techiman waterfalls, or the Volta and Bosomtwe Lakes gives some indication of the eco-tourism potential of Ghana’s water bodies.

Water tourism, like fishing, requires skills such as swimming, navigation, surfing, boating, and diving to be able to safely exploit the treasures of water. This is an area where the traditional skills of the teeming fishermen could be honed and diversified from fishing to eco-tourism. Moreover, fishing as a livelihood vocation has lost its verve because of declining productivity due to overfishing, overcapacity and illegal fishing practices.

Water tourism can best be conducted in clean, serene and hygienic environments. However, poor sanitation and hygiene practices have rendered most water bodies unsightly, dirty and unhygienic as a result of indiscriminate dumping of solid and liquid waste in water bodies coupled with open defecation at the shores of water bodies. This makes even a stroll along the beaches unattractive, let alone swimming or diving in the water.

The economic cost of these negative practices in terms of lost revenue and jobs from tourism and fisheries, and poor health conditions of the communities, is incalculable.

Fisheries

So far, fishing is the main livelihood activity as far as water use is concerned. This is evidenced by the large number of canoes and other fishing vessels dotting the various coastal and river beaches in the fishing communities. Cage culture of Tilapia (aquaculture) is another promising livelihood activity which is being undertaken on a modest scale in the Volta Lake. There could be other livelihood activities, such as sand winning, cutting of mangrove trees for firewood, and small scale mining, although these are not regulated and have dire consequences for the aquatic environment and minimal public benefits.

About 10% of the population derives their livelihoods, directly or indirectly, from the fisheries sector, it is commonly touted. However, there is overfishing and overcapacity, coupled with the use of illegal fishing methods which has led to a marked decline in fish stocks, productivity and profitability.

There is the need to implement effort reduction measures as stipulated in the National Marine Fisheries Management Plan such as capping of fishing vessels, reduction in fishing days, and fishing capacity, through registration and licensing of all vessels engaged in fishing activity. In addition, conservation measures, such as time and area closures, and designation of protected areas, as well as improved value addition, must be rigorously adopted.

Whereas there is the need to reduce effort through capping, there must also be retrofitting of the excess fishing capacity (canoes) for touristic activities such as ferrying tourists for aquatic mammal watching, and visits to forts and castles dotting the coastline. The use of water bodies for aquaculture must also be enhanced taking cognizance of its possible adverse effect on the environment if regulations are not followed.

Water Transport

Transportation by means of water exists between Ghana’s designated ports of Tema and Takoradi, and other international ports for commercial bulk trade. However, there is also an unregulated bulk transportation of illegally obtained petroleum products using wooden canoes and other small crafts. This poses so much risk in terms of water pollution and fire hazards, and seeding of maritime crime.

Regarding the inland sector, there exists also some limited water transport on the Volta Lake for bulk petroleum as well as food commodities by the Volta Lake Transport Company. The same company also runs passenger ferry services in some areas along the Volta Lake. Besides these, private persons also operate passenger and goods carriage services with wooden canoes on the Volta Lake and other rivers. Because of inadequate enforcement of regulations regarding safe loading and provision of life jackets, this sector experiences maritime accidents which result in losses to life and property.

One critical infrastructural limitation as far as water transportation is concerned, is the inadequacy and in some cases, unavailability of harbours and quays for safe berthing of vessels and canoes, and handling of persons, goods and services. Another is dry-docking and maintenance services for boats and equipment, and search-and-rescue services in the wake of maritime accidents.

Judging from the fact that Ghana is endowed with several river bodies and the ocean, the poor infrastructure and services as well as inadequate capacity building, have restricted the bulk of transportation in the country to the use of vehicles on roads. The water space is therefore woefully underutilized as far as transportation is concerned.

Waste Management

Our rivers and ocean have conspicuously been turned into sumps for both solid and liquid waste. The sight of such murky waters is just appalling. It has been observed that local houses along beaches are positioned rather with their backs facing the waterfront to facilitate the use of the water for dumping of refuse through the back outlets. It is also commonplace for people to hold household waste purposely to be dumped into runoffs during rainfalls. Sewers are directed into drains and their effluents end up in water systems rather carelessly.

All manner of activities and businesses from carpentry to automobile repair are sited along water ways to facilitate dumping of waste material into them. Illegal small-scale miners dredge in streams and rivers and process the mineral ores directly into water bodies, exposing these fragile aquatic environments and organisms to mud, cyanide and mercury. This is the extent to which most of our water bodies have been degraded and have become life-threatening for human use.

The inhabitants around the discoloured and polluted Pra river in the Western Region complain that the river has lost completely its normal uses. They claim that as at late 2019, users of the Pra river developed strange skin complications and the fish population in the river had completely disappeared. Thus, the generally poor inhabitants in the communities around the Pra river have to continue to rely on water bagged in polythene sachets and sold dearly to them for both consumption and bathing.

Conclusion

Ghanaians need to be made aware of Ghana’s vast Blue Economy in order to make extensive and prudent use of it. Currently, this is not being achieved even though the coastal and riparian communities form a substantial proportion of Ghana’s population and their livelihood activities impact heavily on the aquatic ecosystems.

There is need for enhanced education, skill development and enforcement of regulations to ensure a sustainable use of ocean, river and lake resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and marine and freshwater ecosystem health.