Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past

Accessing Water

All living things—people, animals and plants—need water. This fact underlies the first rule of hospitality across the region: a traveling visitor should be made welcome with an offer of water to drink on arriving at the house. Fresh water sustains life, whether it falls as rain, is collected from streams and rivers, or comes from below ground through springs or wells (boreholes). Over centuries, daily access to water has been an important factor in people’s decisions about where to live. For this reason villages and towns in earlier times were often located in walking distance to rivers or streams that flowed for much of the year.

Children fetching water from the Black Volta River, Bui, 2009

When families have to carry water for all of their everyday uses—cooking, drinking, bathing, animal care—they are careful to conserve water, using only as much as they need. Fetching and carrying water was most often done by women and older children, and over the generations they learned and shared techniques to ensure that precious water was not lost as they carried full containers home from a water source. They knew that floating a few leaves on top of the water helped to keep it from sloshing over the sides of the container as they walked, which the leaves did by changing the water’s surface tension. Fetching and carrying water was also a job done together. Through cooperation, women and children helped one another to lift and place heavy containers of water on one another’s heads for the walk home. Care had to be taken to avoid tripping and falling. No matter how close to home, a fall meant returning to the water source so the family would have the water it needed.

Rain showers provide a good opportunity to collect and store water. In the early 21st century, many households use industrially made plastic buckets and barrels to collect and store water. In the late 20th century, people often used metal drums for this purpose. Like the plastic barrels used today, many of these metal drums were re-purposed, which means they were bought at market after being used for another purpose like transporting commercial liquids. In buying a re-purposed barrel, it is important to know its original use. Only food-grade barrels, like those re-purposed from transporting foods such as cooking oil or juices, should be used as water barrels. Because non-food-grade barrels are used to transport chemicals like cleaning or industrial products, these barrels contain contaminants that are harmful to people even after they have been thoroughly washed. Collected rain water is useful for many household purposes, but unless it is filtered and treated, it is not a good source of drinking water because of the contaminants it washes from roofs and gutters as it falls.

Collecting water during a rainfall, Ahenkro, 2018

An advantage of industrially made barrels is their size. They can hold many gallons or liters of water. But before these industrial products were easily available, the grandmothers and grandfathers made their own water-storage containers from clay. Large pots were specially made to store water in households. Because these pots were made of porous material, small amounts of water evaporated through their walls, keeping the water inside cool through a process that scientists call evaporative cooling. They also made and used smaller clay pots that could have been used to carry water from its source to the family home for daily use. But people may have chosen instead to use large calabash gourds for this daily task because they are strong yet light in weight.

Water storage jars, Bondakile, 1994
Clay water-cooling pots, Ahenkro, 1986
Water storage pots, Banda area, 1994

Though rainfall is a good source of fresh water, it falls seasonally and people must rely on other water sources during the dry season. In the past, people sometimes dammed streams to create small reservoirs or ponds from which water could be collected during both the wet and dry seasons. But when water does not flow, it becomes stagnant, creating conditions in which bacteria and parasites can live and grow. One of these parasites is guinea worm, which caused much suffering for the grandfathers and grandmothers. The tiny parasites—too small to be seen without magnification—enter the body as larvae when people drink unfiltered water from stagnant water sources. Over the course of a year, the parasite matures into a worm which travels to the surface of the skin, usually on the person’s legs or feet. Here the worm causes a painful blister before it eventually leaves the body. The person infected by the parasite suffers great pain at this time.

During the 1980s, world health organizations made it a priority to eliminate suffering from guinea worm in rural communities across several continents. A global eradication campaign partnered with the Ghana government to increase awareness of how the disease spread and to promote clean water solutions. Drilling and maintaining boreholes is one way that people in Banda have been able to stay free of guinea worm over recent decades. In 2015 the World Health Organization certified Ghana as free of “Dracunculiasis” (the scientific name for the disease), but the lessons about the importance of clean water for drinking and cooking remain important on an ongoing basis.

It is common in the early 21st century for people to get most of their water from boreholes or wells, which are a shared community resource. These wells were drilled in numbers from the later 1980s and were a major reason why guinea worm stopped spreading in the area. Before the boreholes, the grandmothers and grandfathers sometimes suffered severe water shortages, as for example in the early 1980s when Ghana had a serious drought. Water sources close to villages and towns dried out, forcing people to walk long distances to collect water. Women from Wewa recall traveling to the other side of the mountain where they collected water by digging in a dry stream bed, knowing that water remained below the ground surface. The task required patience as women awaited their turn to scoop up the small amount of water that slowly seeped into the hole using a calabash. It was a time of great hardship and the grandmothers and grandfathers had to adopt strong water conservation measures to ensure that their households had the water they needed.

In recent years the popularity of water sold in small plastic bags (called sachets) has increased across Ghana. Referred to as “pure water” because it is sold as filtered or treated, many people rely on sachets for drinking water today. Given that a sachet holds 500 ml (2 cups) of water, a typical household uses many sachets in a day. As in Ghana’s urban areas, the plastic waste associated with water sachets creates litter and clogs road-side drains, causing water to pool and creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes which can spread malaria. Solving this waste management problem is an issue for communities across the region.

Just as people today have to balance the benefits and problems associated with new ways of accessing water, the grandfathers and grandmothers had to make decisions about how close and to what kind of water source they lived. While many old settlements (kataa in Nafaanra) are located within a 10-15 minute walk of a perennial stream or river, few were located close to the banks of large rivers. Though the grandfathers and grandmothers were perhaps unaware of exactly how insect-borne diseases were transmitted, they may well have understood the association of river-side settlements with increased rates of blindness. Scientists call the disease onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness because it is caused by a parasite that is spread through bites of black flies which breed in fast-flowing rivers. River blindness is another disease that international health agencies have worked to eliminate across the region over recent decades.

There is much that we do not know about how the grandfathers and grandmothers managed their water needs on a daily basis. But we do know that water was an ongoing need and that the grandmothers who were potters over centuries made clay water pots that could store water and keep it cool. We also know that water was a factor in people’s decisions about where to settle and that people in the past struggled with the same challenges as people face today: the need to balance health and safety while managing this all-important and life-sustaining resource.

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