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At a glance: Ghana

Child exploitation and Guinea worm result from lack of safe water in Ghana

© UNICEF/2007/Aboagye
Sulemana Alhassan, 13, a water vendor since he was 8, with his donkey at work in Savelugu, northern Ghana.

By Nana Yaw Saah Aboagye and Allison Hickling

ACCRA, Ghana, 14 March 2007 – Savelugu, a small town in the Savelugu-Nanton District of Ghana’s Northern Region, used to enjoy a regular supply of clean water – before the water system was no longer able to meet the needs of a growing population.

While some water is still available in the centre of the town, it is scarcely enough for those living on the outskirts. As a result, the community has resorted to the use of untreated dam water, dugouts and unprotected hand-dug wells.

Over the years, these unsafe sources have become the only water supply for many of Savelugu’s children and their families.

‘Donkey boy’ vendors

Because of this shortage of safe water, Savelugu has fallen victim to Guinea worm, a debilitating waterborne disease. In 2006, the town was the most Guinea worm-endemic community in Ghana. With virtually no running water available, children regularly walk about 2 km to the nearest dam to fetch water that is infested with the Guinea worm parasite.

An unfortunate mix of demand and opportunity has led some of these children to become suppliers of harmful water.

Known in Savelugu as ‘donkey boys’, these water vendors use donkeys to haul drums of unfiltered water between the dam and the community. In any random group of 10 vendors, only 1 or 2 are likely to be in school.

Eight hours of hauling water

Sulemana Alhassan, 13, has been a water vendor since he was 8. He does not go to school. “I was in Class 1 when my father took my brother and me to farm in Walewale,” he says. “After harvesting, he bought this donkey for us to cart water for money.”

Sulemana’s day begins as early as 5:30 a.m., and he carts water back and forth until 1 p.m. Sometimes, to keep up with customers’ demands, he starts again at 4 p.m. Since there is only one donkey to carry the loads, his elder brother’s job is to solicit customers.

© UNICEF/2007/Aboagye
A young Ghanaian water vendor filling his barrel at a dam.

A drum of water often goes for 6,000 cedis (about 67 cents). On an average day, the brothers sell about five drums. All the money they earn goes to their father, who uses it to buy food.

Even though Sulemana says he wants to be in school instead of fetching water every day, he seems resigned to his fate.

Water filtering brings hope

To accommodate its population of 29,000, Savelugu has many other young water vendors like Sulemana whose hopes of accomplishing their full potential fade a little more with each passing day. And instead of being part of the solution, they are now contributing to one of their community’s biggest problems.

Over time, however, interventions by UNICEF Ghana and others have brought hope to the people of Savelugu.

In partnership with the national Guinea Worm Eradication Team and others, UNICEF recently supported the local District Assembly in training 180 young water vendors to filter water at the source before they distribute it.

In a three-phase project, UNICEF and partners are also providing mechanized systems to supply safe water in parts of Savelugu. The entire project will serve up to 80 per cent of the community. At the same time, UNICEF has initiated a project to repair a dysfunctional Ghana Water Company Limited system and supplement it with a mechanized borehole.

Improvements and ongoing struggle

These efforts in water development are complemented by UNICEF-supported initiatives providing health and hygiene education – initiatives that aim to change behaviours in the community and help prevent the spread of Guinea worm.

The work of UNICEF Ghana and its partners has led to significant improvements in the water situation in Savelugu, but the district continues to struggle with Guinea worm. Despite notable reductions in the number of cases in recent years, the disease is now on the rise again.

UNICEF’s work will not be over until Sulemana and his young friends can leave their donkeys behind and head to school instead – until everyone in Savelugu can once again enjoy the privilege of safe, clean water, and the community is finally free from Guinea worm.



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