Next week marks the official opening of the Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management and its home, a newly built seven-story building in Accra, the capital of the African nation of Ghana. Initially, the institute will operate as part of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Ernest K. Yanful, University of Western Ontario
The Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management will officially open in Ghana next week to train a new generation of sanitation and waste engineers in Africa and support one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
October 29, 2013—November 9 will see the arrival of the first group of students at the Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management, located in Accra, the capital of the African nation of Ghana. With the students’ arrival, Ghana’s newest institute of higher education will begin its 10-year plan to become a full-fledged university, and in doing so it will support the seventh of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. This goal calls for ensuring environmental sustainability, and category c of the goal is to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation,” according to the U.N. website describing the goals.
“No school, no university in Ghana is deliberately dedicated to sanitation and waste management. In fact, in the whole of Africa, there is probably one other,” says Ernest Yanful, Ph.D., P.Eng., M.ASCE, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Western Ontario and an associate director of the school’s Geotechnical Research Centre. Yanful, a native of Ghana, was part of the initial conversation about creating the institute, a conversation that was held in Ghana in 2007 during a conference funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. Last year he spent his sabbatical leave in Ghana helping to design laboratory space for the institute, establish its administrative framework, and develop its 10-year plan.
“When we talk about sanitation . . . it is very simple,” Yanful says. “Basically, it is referring to having access to a clean place to take a shower and having access to a clean and safe toilet. Period. That is all. And people don’t have that, believe it or not. So it is a major problem.”
The need in Ghana and, indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa in general is pressing. The numbers from the most recent (2006) survey in Ghana of the status of women and children are appalling. Carried out by the Ghana Statistical Service in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the firm Macro International, part off the global technology and infrastructure firm ICF International, which is based in Calverton, Maryland, the survey found that only 60.7 percent of Ghanaians used “sanitary means of excreta disposal” and that 24.4 percent of the population did not have access to even such rudimentary facilities as a bucket or a pit latrine and so had to resort to the bush or open fields.
The status report on the Millennium Development Goals released this summer indicated that, worldwide, 2.5 billion people still lack access to toilets or latrines. While the situation in sub-Saharan Africa has improved since 1990, it is currently worse than the 2006 numbers for Ghana. In 1990, 36 percent of the population in sub-Sarahan Africa had to resort to “open defecation,” and that figure was still an elevated 26 percent as recently as 2011. Ending this practice, which poses serious health and environmental risks, is a critical element in achieving category c of the seventh development goal.
Success under this goal is not to ensure 100 percent access to a latrine, flush toilet, or otherwise improved sanitation facility. As mentioned above, the goal is more modest, seeking only to halve the number of people worldwide without access to improved sanitation measures between 1990 and 2015. This means that an additional 1 billion people will need access to improved sanitation within the next two years, according to the U.N. status report. Put another way, the availability of improved sanitation options will have to extend not to the current 64 percent but rather to 75 percent of the world’s population, the U.N. report notes.
The new Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management is gearing up to help. “We need to be able to say [to the students], ‘OK, how do we get a clean environment? How do we control and manage our waste in such a way that it doesn’t get into the environment?’” Yanful says. “And if it should get into the environment, how do we contain it so that it doesn’t pollute the soil from which people are going to grow their vegetables and their potatoes and yams?” Ensuring that students understand that waste needs to be contained so that, for example, it doesn’t contaminate wells and make the water deadly, will be a critical focus of the institute, he notes.
The institute is designed to create “a new generation of engineers and scientists who understand the issues at stake,” Yanful says. These newly trained engineers will then have the ability to develop and implement solutions that will be geared toward local and regional needs.
The institute will be dedicated to training its students to develop appropriate technologies in water treatment, waste management, and basic sanitation and to implement current environmental policies enacted by such international bodies as the United Nations, according to Yanful. “Sometimes solutions that work very well in North America—in the United States, for example—will not work very well in developing countries,” Yanful cautions. “Therefore, you need to understand the social as well as the cultural context and be able to develop an appropriate technology.”
Yanful also points out that “when you begin to do intervention, you have to be careful.” The fact that a particular technology is sophisticated doesn’t mean, he says, that people are ready for it or, if they are ready, that the technology is sustainable in the long run. If a system fails, the knowledge and parts necessary to bring it back onstream must be available locally; otherwise, [the restoration work] becomes prohibitively time consuming and expensive.
Ghana’s new institute will not only train students to develop alternative technologies that are local and sustainable; it will also help students make connections between problems and solutions in ways that might not occur to engineers trained elsewhere in the world. For example, poor sanitation, Yanful notes, leads to swarms of mosquitoes. An integrated system that captured energy from the combustion of biomass (in this case, human waste) could power an electrical mosquito repellent. Such repellents are effective, but unfortunately they rely on power from unreliable power grids, Yanful explains. Creating a system that would dispose of the waste through combustion and harvest the heat from that combustion to generate electricity for powering the repellents would go far in reducing mosquito infestations and improving sanitation.
As it begins operation the institute will be welcoming roughly 100 students from Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Togo, Zambia, and Ghana who are already in the workforce and are seeking additional training in environmental sanitation, according to Yanful. Initial modules will focus on continuing education and will typically serve 40 students. The students will undergo 10-day training sessions in particular areas, and upon completing four such sessions a student will receive a certificate. Those seeking to obtain a diploma will have to complete six to eight sessions.
The institute will operate for five years under the umbrella of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. The university will then begin to step back as the institute seeks accreditation on its own, adds departments and staff members, and develops full-time undergraduate and graduate programs, according to Yanful.
During those initial five years, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology will use the institute’s seven-story building, which will open in early November, for some of its own courses.
Major funding for the institute has come from Zoomlion Ghana Limited, a major waste management company in Ghana. The new building is located is Accra next to the company’s headquarters.