Fredrik Sunesson had high hopes when the first tanker truck unloaded feces from some of Accra’s 4 million residents at his recycling plant in Ghana’s capital. Seventeen months later, those expectations have been dashed.
A combination of red tape and disputes over payments mean Sunesson’s Slamson Ghana Ltd. is running far below capacity, he says. Most of the 140 tankers dump the contents of Accra’s toilets each day into the Gulf of Guinea at a foul-smelling dune known as Lavender Hill. The lagoon nearby is so polluted that scientists says most life-forms can’t survive. The slum nearby has earned the nickname Sodom and Gomorrah.
Despite a series of infrastructure projects backed by foreign donors, Accra doesn’t have a working sewer system, leaving most of its citizens to choose between communal latrines or defecating on open ground. That’s contaminating the city’s groundwater, according to the World Bank, and almost 700 people have contracted cholera since June. The failure to maintain existing treatment plants has rendered them unusable, while a lack of political will means there’s little prospect of any immediate improvement.
Accra’s problems are an example of how external investment and good intentions often aren’t enough to make a difference in Africa. As many as seven out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to flush or chemical toilets or latrines, according to the World Bank.
African countries including Kenya to Malawi are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve sanitation and build processing centers for waste. That kind of infrastructure investment is a focus of this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington attended by U.S. President Barack Obama and more than 40 African leaders.
The World Bank plans to give Ghana $150 million in grants to improve access to potable water and basic toilets for the poorest residents of Accra, where most roads are lined with open drains and gutters that overflow during heavy rain. Ghana will seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund as its currency, the worst performer in the world, is slowing economic growth, Finance Minister Seth Terkper said.