Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Our Precious Earth - Part 1

"One man’s waste is another man’s treasure"… but sometimes it’s just waste

I'd never even heard of Earth Hour. Talking to a friend from Canada she told me how they celebrated Earth Hour last month by unplugging absolutely everything for an hour. At the time she was paying tribute to the planet’s generous outpouring of finite resources I was probably drinking pure water from a 500mL bag that's likely going to get burned in some rubbish pile later while pointing the fan at me, wishing that I had a refrigerator to plug into the wall. I’ve since heard that you can sell back the empty pure water sachets after you collect a lot of them – so I’ve been collecting them but I’m not sure where to bring them yet.

500ml Water Sachet

Below are some comments on the use of the environment and resources that I see here. It’s in no way complete, and represents life in the Northern Region as that’s where I’ve spent most of my time. It’s a topic I expect I’ll come back to as there is a lot to it, but here’s my start based on every day practices that I observe.

Here I am able to conserve water quite well. The water that I use to wash my hair and body goes into another bucket that we use to flush the toilet (if there is that luxury, I’m now with a latrine), and the toilet is only flushed when necessary. Dish water if it's not too bad can get used for the same thing. I can bath with about 7 litres of water if I’m washing my hair, 5 if I’m not, 3 if I need to.

My recycled gerri cans for fetching water

Household and small business electricity is used fairly conservatively from what I can tell. Every outlet has a switch that people seem to dutifully turn off when not in use, and I get the impression that people are generally power conscious because of the cost. Appliances are all small, making them more efficient usually. Air conditioners are only found in NGO offices, and important government official’s offices as a rule – but I’m not speaking of Accra (the capital city) which seems to be a separate entity at times. All clothes are hand washed and line dried. (30 min in the mid-day sun!)

My compound centre

Most things outside of plastic bags are recycled or repaired. Used clothing is sold everywhere (courtesy EU and North America). The main cereals are still traditional crops that require less inputs to grow (yams, cassava, maize rather than wheat), although imported spaghetti noodles seem to be inserting themselves pretty aggressively into the standard diet.

The favoured transport is the motorbike. Not only does it traverse the unpaved roads better, but it uses at most 1/5th of the gas (which costs about the same as in Canada 5GH¢ / gallon, and 1GH¢~$1CDN). Many people still ride bicycles. Car exhaust systems generally aren’t well maintained and as a result exhaust fumes are generally noxious along the main roads. The cars themselves though seem to be fixed and run until their components disintegrate back to elemental form. In Tamale public transit around town is provided “shared taxi” which has typical destinations and routes around town. You can pick it up anywhere along route and “alight” anywhere along route for a fraction of the cost it would be to charter a taxi there yourself. There are no meters but the prices are standard. (30 peswas for about 5km if my estimate of distance is correct)

My public transit from the village

“One man’s waste is another man’s fertilizer.”

Men and women use urinals to pee and women don't use toilet paper after they pee. In the north where Islamism is common you’ll often find a little plastic kettle which is also the kind used for washing before prayers, this is used to splash on yourself which I feel like I've got the hang of. I’m teased by my Christian friends here for having one of these, but I think the Muslims have a pretty good system for hygiene so I’m happy to adopt this practice!! If you have to “free yourself” often recycled newspapers or notebook paper is used for toilet paper. THE LEFT HAND IS ONLY FOR WIPING. When I was working with the East Gonja district I learned of their program encouraging the building of Kumasi ventilated pit latrines (KVIP’s) that are able to decompose naturally and be used for fertilizer after 6 years. They are more sustainable and currently more appropriate that flush toilets here. You have 2 tanks with a ventilation shaft, and you alternate use of them every 6-8 years.
My bidet

Most things are packaged to keep it from the dust, and all bought things come in these black plastic bags which are designed to get holes and tear after a single use. I try to reuse as many as I can or bring my own cloth bags, but re-using a plastic bag meant that when one broke the other day I lost an avocado on the way home :( The discarded bags are EVERYWHERE. There are only a few public trash cans in Tamale. Most garbage is thrown on the ground. If it's edible, the goats clean it up. If it's plastic I've been told "somebody comes round to pick it up." I feel like a piece of me dies if I end up throwing something plastic on the ground – most times I can carry my trash home.

The dump/sewar behind my room and The Waste Management Team

Wood is a major source of fuel especially in rural areas and deforestation is a growing concern (pardon the pun). There's also the nasty habit of bush burning here because it's believed that the bush and trees compete for the water the crops use. In actuality bush burning drops the water table about 50cm on average, making it more difficult for everyone, plants and humans alike to access water.

“One man’s waste is everyone’s problem”

Conservation is out of necessity rather than wisdom I fear, but can necessity the mother of invention create tools and practices that make it easier for wise decisions to be made in future? By finding ways to live on less, could we manage living on more? I say live on more because that’s the result of economic development it seems. Understanding is key, but is that knowledge enough to change behaviour?

My neighbourhood dump, walled in with the public toilets

I’m reading “Small is Beautiful” right now by Shumacher, and he suggests that what’s needed right now more than education or greater understanding about this subject is a strong sense of societal morals. Morals influence behaviour. I feel there is no shortage of societal morals here in Ghana. There is a social justice system that seems to keep a lot of things in check in a way that we’ve replaced with enforced laws and formal judicial systems in Canada. Perhaps it is possible to work with communities to achieve a common goal in a way that doesn’t come quite so easily in the individualist society that I grew up in. It seems to be the approach that a lot of NGOs and community groups are taking here. I certainly can’t deny the sense of community here. This is one area where I think Canada may have a lot to learn from the solutions developed in Ghana.