Water and Waste

Workplan Overview

The demand for water, sewage, electricity and waste collection services has far outstripped the capacity of many cities in sub-Saharan Africa to provide these basic services to all. In most cities, it is the poor who are paying most to purchase replacements for the lack of safe tap water and reliable waste collection.  They are thus the ‘off-grid’ populations targeted in this project.

Private sellers of water fill a key gap in supplying urban off-grid populations with safe drinking water, sold in plastic bags and other containers of different sizes.  In many cities, the sale of water has become a major industry and at the same time is apparently providing safe water to those previously without access. The very success of this industry has led to a huge increase in plastic waste being dumped in streets, drains and rivers.  Without waste collection and recycling services, this plastic waste is posing a new set of environmental hazards to the very people least well-equipped to manage these new risks.

This project, centred on two field studies in Greater Accra region, Ghana and Kisumu, Kenya aims to document the chain of connections between the production and sale of clean drinking water in plastic containers and the accumulation of plastic waste in public spaces. In urban Ghana, the majority of water sales are in plastic bags or sachets but plastic bags have been banned in Kenya, so other containers are used for water distribution. As well as the waste from water sales, a lot of foods are sold in plastic wrappings and bags. When discarded, these plastics contribute further to the environmental hazards which are particularly acute in low-income communities without the resources to support organised waste collection or recycling.

We propose to adopt an integrated approach to the purchase of water and foodstuffs and the disposal of their containers and wrappings.  Both countries already have nationwide household surveys that collect data on the food and goods people consume and the services they have.  These surveys have not been connected to the problem of waste management. We plan to visit marketplaces, buying foods and then recording packaging and organic waste. By combining this information with the household survey data, we can work out how much domestic waste like plastics gets collected and how much is discarded or burned, ultimately entering the atmosphere or oceans.

Greater Accra, Ghana

A city where many drink sachet (bagged water), creating plastic waste requiring management.

James Town, Accra (photo credit: Dr. Heini Vaisanen, University of Southampton

In Greater Accra, Ghana, we will also survey informal waste collectors in urban Greater Accra. We shall discover the extent to which these small businesses support waste collection and recycling (particularly plastic from bagged water) to aid local government to identify gaps in waste collection coverage. We also believe that highlighting the important role of small waste collectors could lead to greater business support for such collectors. 

Delivery vehicles carrying sachet water in Accra (photo credit: Dr. Mawuli Dzodzomenyo, University of Ghana’)

We shall also evaluate whether community education campaigns to encourage domestic waste recycling reduce the amount of waste and plastic observed in the local environment. Such campaigns are currently pursued by several local charities with support from the Plastic Waste Management Project. 

Kisumu, Kenya

A city where water is usually sold in jerrycans rather than bagged, but the jerrycan water often gets contaminated

In Kisumu, Kenya, where water is usually sold in jerrycans rather than bagged, the jerrycan water often gets contaminated. We plan to find out whether this jerrycan water is safer under an arrangement known as delegated management.  This involves a water utility passing on management of the piped network to a local business in slum areas, so as to reduce vandalism of pipes and bring water closer to slum-dwellers.

A Kenyan woman handles a jerry can water. (photo credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

We will compare water quality in areas with and without this arrangement to see if it makes the water sold safer. We also plan to bring water-sellers and consumers together to find and test ways of reducing contamination of water between a jerry-can being filled and water being drunk at home. Rather than imposing a solution, we want to work together with vendors and consumers on this issue, but there are for example containers designed to keep water cleaner that we could explore.