Research and Enterprise

Putting people's needs at the heart of water access in Ghana

Dr Anne Schiffer, in the Leeds School of Arts, recently travelled to Ghana to find out more about the connections between energy and the availability of clean water and build relationships with community and non-governmental actors.

Published on 04 May 2020

Energy and water scarcity are often considered in separate from one another by academic researchers and policy makers. This is contrary to the way people in parts of the developing world experience these issues in their everyday lives. Here they are all part of the same socio-economic, socio-technical, socio-ecological and socio-political systems. As a human-centred design researcher working in international development, I want to integrate how we think about different resource challenges and respond to these in a more holistic and people-centred manner.

Human-centred design is a creative approach to solving problems that focuses on people’s everyday practices. As an early career researcher, being awarded funding through the Building International Collaborations (Bic) Prize was vital in expanding my research to a different national context and to explore the connection between energy and water access challenges.

In January 2019, I first visited the Ghanaian Ashanti region where I carried out initial observations, mapping of energy and water infrastructure, and semi-structured interviews with people in the rural town of Buamadomasi.

The wider community consists of small hamlets and dispersed individual households often only accessible on foot. What I found was that there are stark differences in water and energy consumption practices - some households had local access to grid electricity, boreholes or were able to purchase bags of water whilst others had to travel long distances to charge mobile phones and relied on streams or surface water.

However, with the local resources disappearing during the dry season, water access seemed a far more pressing issue. The remaining and increasingly stagnant water resources are frequently contaminated with parasites and other pathogens that can have a negative impact on human health.

In response, an array of donor organisations install boreholes to provide clean water including the health centre in Buamadomasi which hosted me during my stay. It is sponsored by Foundation Human Nature (FHN), an international non-governmental organisation that provides training and support to strengthen health care in a number of locations around the world. FHN has recently managed to raise substantial funds to provide water infrastructure welcomed by remote and underserved parts of the community.

What we are finding however, within and around Buamadomasi, is that derelict hand-pumps are often removed, enabling access to the boreholes underneath. This effectively renders them into open and exposed wells contributing to potential contamination of water resources.

This shapes local attitudes that bagged water is of better quality and the preferred option for those that can afford and easily access it. The resulting plastic waste is commonly disposed of in local landfills or burned, releasing carcinogenic materials into the environment and further impacting on human health.

So, achieving sustainable water access is more complex than simply providing infrastructure. We need more insight into the socially differentiated ways in which water is sourced, stored and consumed. I hope to use BIC Follow on Funding to carry out a more thorough investigation of water consumption practices and facilitate co-design workshops working with NGO, community and technical stakeholders.

To find out more about the Building International Collaborations prize and follow on funding, please contact the Research Team at Leeds Beckett.

Dr Anne Schiffer

Dr Anne Schiffer explores how design thinking can help tackle local and global real world challenges, including in the areas of sustainable energy transitions, energy and water access. She is the author of Reframing Energy Access: Insights from The Gambia.

The interdisciplinary nature of her research brings together participatory/ co-design practice, urbanism, feminist development theory and design anthropology. She holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast that critiques the role of designers in international development.

Prior to joining Leeds Beckett University, Dr Schiffer led the Scottish part of Community Power, a European funded project that aimed to improve policy and legislation to speed up the development of community-owned renewable energy. She also serves as Senior Independent Director on the board of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

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