The mixed blessing of running water in a Ghanaian village

Women standing around a tap

When clean running water was brought to a rural community in Ghana six years ago it was hailed as progress. But while the standpipe is convenient, it has caused unforeseen problems.

A rutted dirt road runs through the small settlement of Adjako, about an hour's drive northwest of Accra. About 800 people live here, in basic homes made of breezeblock, wood and corrugated iron.

The action in Adjako centres around a standpipe in the middle of the village. And it starts early. By 05:30 the cockerels are crowing, the radios are on and the queue at the standpipe is growing. At 06:00 water from the tap starts to flow.

Women and children gather in a noisy group. The conversations are loud and there's lots of laughter. But, as the clock ticks towards 09:00, the bickering begins in earnest. Because at 09:00, the water stops.

The women - and it is overwhelmingly women and children - argue over whose turn it is next to take water. They shout at each other, overlapping in at least three different languages - Ga from the coast, Twi from the Ashanti region and pidgin English bequeathed by Christian missionaries and British colonialists.

Filling up the water barrels at the standpipe Emma tries to make peace when arguments break out

"Why haven't you filled my barrel?"

"All these people were here before you!"

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The price of land has risen more than 100-fold in the last 10 years”

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"What do you mean all these people were before me?"

"I was here before you came!"

Emma, one of the oldest women in Adjako, sits across the road, selling a kind of porridge and a vicious-looking hot sauce with a fish-head floating in the oil.

From time to time she wanders over to the standpipe. She says she is trying to make peace between the bickering women although, frankly, Emma seems to start more arguments than she finishes.

"At this standpipe most of the conversations are heated arguments because the water flow is inconsistent and everyone wants to have the water," she says.

Water around the world

  • The UN suggests that each person needs 20-50 litres of water a day for drinking, cooking and cleaning
  • Globally, diarrhoea is the leading cause of illness and death - 88% of diarrhoeal deaths are due to a lack of access to sanitation, inadequate availability of water for hygiene and unsafe drinking water
  • Today 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation - every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation

Adjako, and the nine neighbouring communities that share the clean water supply, have become more argumentative in recent years. The water is a blessing but it has also become a cause of much dispute.

The system was built with the help of Danida, the Danish International Development Agency, to bring safe drinking water to these poor, farming communities.

But in nearby Accra, where water supplies are erratic, many wealthy people saw an opportunity. Land was cheap around Adjako and, suddenly, water was plentiful. So they began to buy.

There is a pond nearby where the village used to get its water. You can drive to it in about five or six minutes or walk there in about 20. It will take you longer on the way back if you're carrying a heavy bucket filled with water or dragging a hand-cart along the dirt road.

That's what Alfred Budu used to do when he was a child.

Alfred Budu Alfred Budu used to farm on rented land, but much of it has been sold

"Back then the women found it very difficult to come here," he says. "So I used to bring a push truck, fetch [water] in a drum. I'd serve my family first. And then anyone who could not come themselves, I'd sell to them."

The pond itself is overgrown these days. But the land around it has been cleared.

"Back then it was quite a forest," says Budu. "We had snakes, reptiles, scorpions all along here. Cheetahs used to be here."

We stand together by the stagnant pond and speak about the "bad old days".

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Woman and child carrying a bucket of water in Adjako

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"We used to have bilharzia and guinea worm rampant here - we also had cholera," he says.

"We never thought of having water, we never expected it."

There are not so many cheetahs around Adjako anymore, although Budu says you still have to watch out for them, and much of the forest has been cut back. This place has changed since the water came and new homeowners were allowed to run pipes from the mains, directly into their houses, for a fee.

You can see half-built structures dotting the lush, green landscape. I watched two men building a wall a little further up the hill, but overnight someone knocked it down.

The price of land has risen more than 100-fold in the last 10 years and the number of disputes over ownership is rising. Tempted by rising prices, the original owners have sold out to politicians, doctors, lawyers and other professionals from the capital Accra.

And as the land is sold for housing development, people like Alfred Budu - who used to work on rented farmland - find their livelihoods are gone.

There is an irony here. It was actually Budu himself who approached Danida to ask if his neighbourhood could have a standpipe.

Now the taps in the new houses run 24/7 but the growing demand means that, at the village standpipe, the water only flows for three hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. So the arguments continue.

I have been describing this place as a village. But that can get you into trouble in Adjako.

The people here insist on calling it a community. For them, the word village implies a place that is unsophisticated and underdeveloped.

After all, in Adjako, they have a communal standpipe. And that's progress.

But there is a paradox in that progress. The water has not brought wealth to the area. It has brought the wealthy.

Mike Williams's programme The Tap was broadcast on The Why Factor on the BBC World Service. Listen via iPlayer or browse The Why Factor podcast archive.

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