Water Purification in Ghana

By Havana Blehl, June 2015

Bamvim KidsWhat comes to mind when you think of ‘Africa?’ A jungle, or maybe a safari, where zebras, elephants, giraffes, and lions all drink from the same small pool of water. Well, in Ghana, and in the Western part of Africa as a whole, that does not happen. There are no animals other than goats, sheep, and the occasional snake. And the pool of water where ten different species of safari animals drink from? It’s called a dugout—a bacteria infested water source that serves a community of animals and humans. Since it is the only source of freshwater for miles, humans drink this dugout water without having the means to first purify it. That is why I travelled the rural Northern Region of Ghana—two flights and a 15-hour bus ride—to help set up a water purification system and educate the villagers on the benefits of purifying the dugout water. Because human and animal waste washes into the dugout (which is oftentimes located near a rural village), it causes extreme turbidity and E. coli to inhabit the water, which is then passed on to the community when they drink it. Waterborne and diarrheal diseases are common but the villagers have no other resources or means of accessing clean water. Saha Global, the NGO that I travelled to Ghana with, provided the sustainable model to build a water treatment center in the village, and we (my team of 4 plus a translator) were trained in the purification method and assigned a village to implement the center. The materials to build the system were all purchased in the local market (by contributions that I raised back home) and built by the village members, creating community involvement and support of local business.

After physically putting together the center—which included a 1,000 liter polytank on a metal stand and three 250 liter water drums—we trained the women in the community to purify the turbid dugout water into a clean water source. By using a technique involving hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate and chlorine, the water was free of bacteria and harmful benembe (the Dagbani word for bacteria). The village chief selected three women to manage the center, and once the keys to the center were handed over, three entrepreneurs were born. We suggested charging 10 peswas (less than 3 cents) per 20 liters of clean water sold, and the local community agreed on that fair price. A little on the culture of Ghana…The country is mostly Christian, however the Northern Region where we worked was approximately 70 percent Muslim, so no tank tops or shorts! Ramadan started about a week into our stay, which made it evident how devoted the Northern Ghanaians were to their religion. In the city of Tamale, makeshift prayer centers were set up virtually everywhere: in the center of the market, next to shops, parks, and even next to the mosques themselves. During a prayer calling, hundreds of cars and motos would stop and park all over the city, and thousands of shoes piled up as overflows of people poured out of the crowded mosques’ doors. In the village, there was always a cement building dedicated just for prayer. Everyone observing Ramadan fasted during the day—and that included no water.

Havana with snake

The Ghanaian cuisine consisted of a main starch ingredient—either cassava, yams, or dough—paired with a meat or stew-type-dish. A traditional favorite is Fufu: a red soup-like mixture eaten with a ball of raw dough. And the surprise at the bottom of the stew is…a ball of cow liver. Groundnut soup and Jollaf rice were other staples of the cuisine, as were plantains and yams. Ghanaians don’t use utensils or plates—everything is eaten out of small black plastic bags and with bare hands. The structure of the village included a chief and elders, who acted as the chief’s council. Since they are Muslim, polygamy is accepted, which meant the chief often had three or four wives. Both men and women farmed, however different crops and different seasons. During my time there, the women in the village farmed Shea nuts, which is a small fruit from the Shea nut tree that the women pick, then roast over a flame in a large pot; the nuts are then laid out to dry in the hot sun and pounded until the nuts crack. Most of the farming is sustenance farming, but the Shea nut farming is the Ghanaian villagers’ source of income because they can sell the Shea nuts to be sold in the market in Tamale.

No one in the village spoke English, so all our communication was done through a translator. It was challenging at first to read body language and facial expression because the standard gestures and mannerisms common in America are not prevalent in these rural villages. When we were speaking, we were not looked in the eye and oftentimes seemed unacknowledged—but I learned not to take it personally, because it’s the culture of their communication. The most rewarding part about working with Saha Global was knowing that we indirectly helped save lives by building the treatment system and by informing the villagers about why drinking dugout water is unhealthy. We walked from hut to hut under the blazing African sun, explaining to households why we implemented the water purification center and its health benefits. It was a challenging, but essential, piece of the process.


When Saha’s Field Reps depart after 3 weeks, the women in the village are left with the task of maintaining the system. Saha Global has a full time staff of representatives who monitor the village’s systems to ensure that the system is functioning properly and the business continues to run. Sustainability and education are the foundation for the water treatment center’s success. As long as the villagers know that drinking dugout water causes waterborne illness from the bacteria, it will keep them returning to the center to purchase more clean water, which ensures the business’s long-term prosperity. Saha Global has implemented water businesses in 78 villages and solar businesses in 15 villages. 40,900 people now have clean drinking water and 5,950 people now have access to electricity. 100% of these businesses are in operation today, and it was a rewarding and thrilling experience to have contributed to the health of one of these villages.

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