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An Open Letter to Ghana's leaders

An Intolerable Situation

As Ghanaians—and, increasingly, the rest of the world—are learning, an intolerable situation has developed at Achimota School. The school’s sewer system, which has never once been upgraded since it was installed more than 75 years ago, has collapsed.

According to the Public Health Department of the Accra Metropolitan Authority (AMA), which inspected the school in January, raw sewage—including human excreta—can be seen leaking from cracks in the large main pipes into some areas of the campus. This is especially true around the sewage treatment plant, the central terminal where the network of underground pipes all converge, near the School Farm. According to other reports, certain gutters have excrement in them, attracting hordes of flies. Others have noted an overpowering stench.

When a sewer system used by more than 5000 people starts malfunctioning, you don’t have a problem—you have an emergency. Indeed, AMA health inspectors say the situation has become too dangerous for students and staff. On 19 January, 2010, they issued the school an ultimatum: solve this public health disaster, or shut down.

Potential Nightmare

The health hazards posed by this crisis are truly grave. In a close-knit community such as a boarding school, where disease transmission is high, the current situation could easily trigger an outbreak of cholera, dysentery or even typhoid. Flies leaving an excrement-filled gutter could easily alight on snacks sold in the streets or on food in the dining halls. Because part of the school’s water supply is sourced from groundwater, it too could become contaminated.

Achimota needs a cost-effective, low-maintenance, environmentally-friendly, gravity-fed sewer system that retains its current area coverage. Properly maintained, it should last many decades.

The legal ramifications are just as frightening. This, after all, is not the first time that AMA health inspectors have issued a directive to this school to close down for failing public health standards. Nothing was done then; the school lacked the financial means to correct the infractions. It is reported, in addition, that in the recent past a student died allegedly from food poisoning. Many suspect that the cause was contaminated food she bought from a street vendor. All it would take is for one more Achimota student to fall victim to this latest crisis, and authorities would have a full-scale legal nightmare on their hands.

With the rainy season approaching, the risk of contamination will rise further. Gutters could overflow. Cars driving through puddles of contaminated water could splash pedestrians. And if students accidentally stepped into sewage containing fecal matter, they could track this to the dorm or the dining hall. From there, it is a short journey to the human mouth.

Yes, if push came to shove, the students could be sent home; but then SSS3 students might miss their national exams. Then too, what about those who live at Achimota year round—the teachers, police, hospital staff, school support staff, and their families?

In light of this, a groundswell of support and concern—among parents, alumni, teachers, students, and now even parliamentarians—is beginning to surge. Indeed, a petition on the GoPetition website to urge a resolution of the Achimota crisis garnered more than 800 signatures from people all over the world in just the first four days, and the number grows hourly.

So, What Happened?

Achimota’s sewer system has been difficult to maintain because the maintenance funds the school receives from the government fall far short of what it actually needs. Despite alumni donations, the entire infrastructure is in a state of profound disrepair. Why? Government schools all receive funding based only on their student population. But Achimota’s 1300-acre campus—with its hospital, post office, police station, and linked neighbouring communities—is in reality more like a small town, and its maintenance needs reflect this. The Government’s funding formula therefore puts the school at a marked disadvantage.

As a government-owned school, Achimota cannot raise its fees to finance anything. Virtually all of its income (about 90%) is fixed by external authorities and lies beyond its control.

For instance, since the sewer system was installed, Achimota’s primary and secondary student population has quadrupled, to 4700. Also, Anumle and Christian villages—which are covered by the system—are no longer villages but full-fledged towns. As the number of users of the sewer system has risen, the processing efficiency of the treatment plant, where all the sewage comes, has deteriorated, bogged down by an unmanageable volume of waste.

The Encroachment Factor

In the last few years, however, the sewer system has encountered a second, more formidable challenge that has dramatically accelerated its decline, leading ultimately to its present catastrophic failure: illegal land encroachment. Private developers have put up—on last count—several hundred buildings on the school grounds, especially around the sewage plant. These encroachments have cracked some of the underground pipes, allowing soil into them and blocking the flow. In other cases, houses have been built right over large sewage channels that should have remained open.

Rehabilitating or replacing the now nearly defunct sewage plant will not be easy because the encroachments closest to the plant have severely limited the engineering options. Experts have indicated that, unless some of the buildings are torn down, it may be impossible to rebuild or replace the plant.

Achimota’s lawyers won a court case that, in effect, authorized the school to rid itself of the illegal structures, but a group representing the encroachers managed to get a court injunction prohibiting the school from undertaking any demolition work. This has only encouraged further encroachment. Even as you read this, the construction continues—and at an alarming rate.

Fortunately, the task of proving illegality may be helped by the fact that Lands Department maps clearly delineate the boundaries of all Achimota School lands, and the 1934 Achimota College Ordinance contains detailed geographic coordinates of the land the colonial government vested in the School Council (now the School Board). Title to any building located within the geographic coordinates of school land can therefore, in principle, be verified by tracing who made the purchase, from whom, when, and whether title was registered.

The encroachment problem, however, has also expressed itself in other ways. Because the campus lacks a perimeter fence, outsiders have literally overrun the school. Speeding buses, tro-tros and taxis use its internal roads to avoid heavy traffic, threatening students’ safety. The games fields have become home to squatters who sleep there at night, hang their washing on the bushes, and sometimes sell illicit drugs during the day, exposing students to additional risk.

For the sewage treatment plant to regain full functionality, the school must have two things: enough unencumbered land around the plant to allow the evaluation of a full range of engineering options; and enough money committed at the right level to finance the project. Presently, neither is assured. The land issue is under litigation; and financially, the school just does not have the means to undertake as complex a project as re-engineering a 5000-user sewage plant that is three-quarters of a century old, part of which now lies under encroachments.

Achimota’s alumni have offered the school significant assistance in the past, and will continue actively to support it. We must be clear on a central issue, however: The school’s major infrastructural needs go well beyond the charity or goodwill of alumni. Achimota is a government-owned school, not a private institution. As such, it falls squarely under the legal responsibility of the Government. So the bulk, if not all, of the financial commitment must come from the Government.

When all is said and done, the Achimota crisis is fundamentally a human rights issue, one that centres on the legal and moral right of Ghana's youth to be able to learn in a clean, hygienic environment free of extraordinary and unusual risks.

Why? As a government-owned school, Achimota cannot raise its fees to finance anything. Virtually all of its income (about 90%) is fixed by external authorities and lies beyond its control. A government school cannot be denied the authority to raise fees to meet urgent needs, and at the same time be informed that the Government will not step forward to fund crucial infrastructural rehabilitation projects, even when the school has been issued an ultimatum to close down—by the Government itself—in the wake of a public health crisis. Those two arrangements are mutually exclusive! In our view, this is, at bottom, a matter of the state’s duty to safeguard the wellbeing of its citizens.

A functioning sewage plant is only one of several important upgrades Achimota needs. Given the school’s decay, there is much to be done, and the Parent-Teacher Association and alumni groups have committed themselves to undertaking a number of pressing projects. In short, the school and its alumni already have their hands full.

How Then Can It Be Fixed?

Achimota needs a cost-effective, low-maintenance, environmentally-friendly, gravity-fed sewer system that retains its current area coverage. Properly maintained, it should last many decades. Admittedly, it would require a substantial financial outlay, but is closing the school a realistic alternative? The only other option would be to abandon the sewage treatment approach altogether and have an endless procession of latrine trucks bearing down on the campus to haul away the waste of more than 5000 users.

We do fully appreciate that the Government has multiple pressing commitments; that many of its fiscal challenges have their roots in the past; and that even with the best of intentions, the Government cannot do everything because resource constraints compel it to prioritize tightly among competing projects. But Achimota’s health crisis can only worsen over time, and an outbreak of disease could come with an unacceptably high price tag. As calamities that could have been prevented often remind us, it generally costs much more to respond to a crisis after the fact than to prevent it from occurring.

The Way Forward

Some may point out that private developers have erected illegal buildings on other school lands as well. True, but to address any widespread problem, one has to start from somewhere. Moreover, the widespread nature of a problem is not grounds for inaction. On the contrary, it makes the issue all the more urgent.

The fact is that Achimota’s sewer system has become a menace that threatens the school’s capacity to fulfil its core mission as a place of learning, because it puts the lives of all at risk. If encroachments stand in the way, then this issue will need to be resolved, for unless the encroachers are held accountable, those eyeing other school lands—not to mention state and stool lands— will only be emboldened.

How the Achimota situation is handled is therefore likely to set an important precedent for the nation. For that reason, we urge that those who have unlawfully encroached on school lands be named publicly, and in the spirit of full disclosure, the relevant court documents be made available to all stakeholders.

When all is said and done, the Achimota crisis is fundamentally a human rights issue, one that centres on the legal and moral right of Ghana’s youth to be able to learn in a clean, hygienic environment free of extraordinary and unusual risks. This is what is at stake at Achimota School today.

Achimota, once upon a time, may have been the pride of the nation, a pacesetter in West African education. That was then. Today the school is not asking for any special treatment. Our request is simply that the Government restore the status of this famous school at least to that of a safe, habitable institution, if nothing more.

What We Urge

For these reasons we, the undersigned, firmly but respectfully urge the Government and the Parliament, in the interest of public health

  1. To approve enough funds to enable Achimota to rebuild its collapsed and antiquated sewer system and thereby stave off a crisis that could lead to water supply contamination or outbreaks of disease;
  2. To assist the school in its legal case to halt all encroachment activity on Achimota lands;
  3. To support the school’s efforts to clear enough land around the sewage plant to make its rehabilitation possible;
  4. In the longer run, to draw up a comprehensive policy for the sustainable maintenance of the assets of government-funded schools.

For further information about the positions and perspectives taken on this issue in this letter, please contact Fanklyn Ayensu or Mina Darfoor at the Achimota School Foundation