THE BLOG
11/20/2015 02:58 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2016

Sanitation Challenge for Ghana's Cities

19 November was World Toilet Day. Around the world people celebrated their toilets, their water and soap. It sounds funny, but toilets are a deadly serious business -- explains IRC's CEO Patrick Moriarty.

Recently I traveled back to Ghana which still feels like home due to the four years of my stay there before moving to the Netherlands in 2013. A lot has changed in the last few years -- especially in the vibrant capital Accra. With Africa's fastest growing economy and a population of 25 million, Ghana is seen as a continental success story (Ghana census 2012).

Riding a wave of rapid economic growth over the last few years, Ghana did relatively well in addressing the Millennium Development Goals, even as the economic growth pushed the majority (51 percent) of Ghanaians to urban areas. (source: World Bank) Average living standards improved while the government managed to halve the rates of poverty, hunger and lack of clean drinking water. Despite this success, one major failure sticks out: sanitation.

Why is sanitation so behind in Ghana?
Despite the rapid and real progress, poor (and not so poor) families in Ghana's urban areas lack toilets and suffer from poor faecal sludge management. Waste lies on the streets, clogs the drains, and increases the spread of diseases like diarrhea and cholera that account for the deaths of thousands of children under five. Ghana's cities struggle to find solutions and despite a booming economy, the country remains one of the worst performing countries in the region. According to the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP), it is estimated that 20 percent of Ghana's urban population has access to safe sanitation, while the average in the region is 41.3 percent.

Of course it's hard for municipalities to keep up with population movement and rapid urbanization. But there is more to it. Key factors are underfunding and low political prioritization -- the latter a cause of the former. The bulk of water and sanitation sector investment goes to water. Less than one per cent of Ghana's internally generated local government funds is used for local government sanitation services. So while many Ghanaians have an improved living standard, 72 percent of the people in big cities continue to use shared public latrines and 7 percent practice open defecation (according to Trémolet Consult who launched the prize).

National Sanitation Campaigns: Clean Ghana and India
In many countries these two key factors -- low political prioritization and resultant underfunding -- are important reasons why sanitation lags behind. Paradoxically, they are arguably our biggest chance for change. Simply because while lack of political engagement keeps progress from happening, there is also plenty of evidence that given political leadership, progress can be astonishingly fast (e.g. See WaterAid's studies in Southeast Asia "Achieving total sanitation and hygiene coverage within a generation -- lessons from East Asia").

The leadership provided by India's Prime Minister Modi when he launched his 'Clean India Campaign' last year should inspire others. The whole world watched as he called on India's population to give Gandhi the gift of a clean India for his 150th birth anniversary in 2019 and inspired India's national effort to improve sanitation and eliminate of open defecation.

Today, Ghana will launch a Sanitation Challenge that will hopefully stimulate a similar wave of enthusiasm. A competition to put urban sanitation high on the agenda, the challenge will see large cities, municipalities and districts with a population of more than 15,000 people competing with each other to identify smart strategies for transformative urban sanitation services. After three years and multiple stages, the city with the most effective strategy will win a financial prize and, of course, national honor.

Ghana's 'Modi moment'
IRC Ghana, the lead local implementing agent acting on behalf of IMC Worldwide will manage this national challenge with the Government of Ghana in the lead. Over the past years IRC Ghana has successfully contributed to a national change in sustainable water services, and by hosting this new initiative I hope we can also stimulate local politicians and citizens to start prioritizing sanitation. And, while I think that Ghana is still awaiting its "Modi moment," I'm at least excited that Ghana's government seems to be showing a new determination to tackle this scourge by running this competition.

In the coming months, I will follow the competition closely as cities register to compete. I hope and believe it will result in a cleaner and healthier Ghana -- as importantly, I hope that it will inspire other countries to emulate the experience.