In line with similar initiatives in Cameroun, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia aimed at encouraging voluntary cleaning of communities by the general public, Ghana has instituted a National Sanitation Day.
This, according to authorities, is in direct response to the squalid conditions that characterise most communities in our country which poses adverse public health risks. Consequently, the first Saturday of every month has been devoted to clean up the heaps of waste that has been blatantly piled up by the public in gutters, along the streets and other open spaces in the preceding month.
Come to think of it, citizens are left to dump waste indiscriminately throughout the month while authorities look on unconcerned and then on National Sanitation Day, we gear up to clean it up – very astounding. What happens in-between the one month period during which heaps of waste are allowed to accumulate and for how long can we keep this up? Undoubtedly, this back and forth phenomenon cannot be a panacea to the insanitary conditions in our communities. Until the foundation of this problem is identified and tackled, any effort in addressing it would be futile.
Authorities must not be oblivious of the meaning of the usual saying that, prevention is better than cure. They should rather promote interventions that prevent problems from being created in the first place than to institute curative measures for them.
Although it is incontestable that the filth in our environment is inextricably linked to the some disease outbreaks in our country, the key question that authorities must seek an answer to is: why do people dump waste into open spaces, gutters and other unapproved sites? It is surprising to note that, some communities and market centres in Ghana do not have communal containers to dump waste into. In such a situation, would it be fair to point accusing fingers at residents for dumping waste indiscriminately?
Even in areas where communal containers are available, they are left to overflow with waste for a long period before being picked up eventually. This has resulted in some communal container sites evolving into refuse dump sites due to the mountains of uncollected waste accumulated over such a long period. In such a case, people will definitely be tempted to dump waste into gutters and other areas instead of making the trip to the aesthetically displeasing and stinking container sites. Sufficient communal containers should therefore be provided at vantage points within communities and central business districts and most importantly, emptied in a timely manner in order to show to the public that authorities are committed to ensuring a clean environment.
There are private waste management companies who are paid with tax payers’ money to collect waste from communities and central business districts across the country. If there were adequate containers located in communities and central business districts where residents can easily dump their waste into and regularly emptied, the National Sanitation Day would be unnecessary.
A critical assessment of the trend in participation by the general public in this monthly clean-up exercise nationwide shows a growing indifference towards the exercise and it seems the exercise is also limited to certain regions across the country. There has been only three episodes and already public interest is waning, thus bringing into question the sustainability of this whole exercise in the long term. This has resulted in a call for a parliamentary bill and local bye-laws to make the exercise compulsory for all citizens of Ghana and prosecute those who abstain from it.
If I may ask, why should people who fail to clean their communities rather be punished while those who dump waste indiscriminately go scot-free?
I believe it would be prudent to institute laws that make rampant waste disposal an offence rather than failure to clean communities. Compelling people to clean communities is not the right way to go; it would rather breed disgust towards the exercise. Security personnel would have to be deployed to ensure that people clean their communities and this could create fear and panic among the populace. Coercing people to clean up communities is in contrast with the initial idea of voluntary clean up and could also be interpreted as forced labour which Article 16(2) of Ghana’s constitution frowns upon.
Ensuring a lasting behavioural change towards the environment cannot be achieved through this means. Perhaps, the need to clean our communities every month would be needless if there are systems in place to forestall indiscriminate dumping of waste in the first place.
Even if legislations are instituted to make abstinence from the monthly exercise an offence, to what extent can this be enforced? What calibre of persons would be legally allowed to abstain from this exercise considering that we are all citizens of Ghana? Will the President, Ministers of State, Parliamentarians, Chief Executives and Chiefs agree to gear up every month for clean up exercises in communities? If these leaders fail to uphold their end of the bargain, then surely the ordinary Ghanaian would also follow suit – leaders lead by example!
Public education on sanitation issues, a major catalyst for behavioural change, is largely overlooked by authorities in their effort to ensure environmental cleanliness. Generally, education on sanitation and hygiene is seen on television and heard on radios only when there are disease outbreaks and after the outbreak, the airwaves get saturated with the usual political tae kwon do. Currently, the intensity of public education on Ebola and Cholera in the media has faded in strength although the threat still exists.
However, ensuring public awareness on issues cannot be achieved through education programs organised once in a blue moon. Citizens need to be consistently educated on their roles in ensuring a clean environment and why it matters to keep the environment clean. This will ensure voluntary action towards ensuring a clean environment at any point in time but not only when authorities want them to. For all you know, some people may not be aware of the risks posed by the insanitary conditions in our environment. Education on sanitation and hygiene should be frequent, sustainable and carried out in languages that can be comprehended by the general public.
The role of the media is therefore crucial in this regard and corporate bodies must as well be brought on board to support. Religious bodies should also be made to take part in clean-up campaigns: after all cleanliness is next to godliness. Religious leaders must get involved in conscientising people on environmental cleanliness and can go the extra mile of establishing a sanitation awareness week as part of their annual activities.
Looking into the future, a new breed of environmentally-conscious people should be nurtured in the country starting from pupils in basic schools. School children should not only be made to learn about the environment for the purpose of examination but must also be involved in clean-up campaigns within their communities. This would instil in them a sense of commitment towards ensuring a clean environment wherever they find themselves.
City centres in some countries abroad appear squeaky clean because children are trained right from their childhood days to be mindful of the environment and they grow with this attitude. If we cannot get adults to do this now, it is essential that future generations are given the necessary support to create the needed change in the coming years.
Let citizens know that keeping a clean environment is for their own good but not because authorities want them to.
Author: Isaac Monney
Lecturer, Department of Environmental Health and Sanitation
University of Education Winneba