Gutter gardens: MH-37’s toxic run-off

Accra’s Military Hospital No. 37, was built during the Second World War and it’s obsolescence is becoming evident. About a year ago, the pipe carrying raw medical waste from the mortuary, maternity and surgical theaters to the treatment tank was damaged. Unable to fix the line, the hospital began dumping bio-hazardous material into the city’s open-gutters. Now, the sewers are overflowing and downstream the stench of contamination and concern is growing thick.

Nuuna, works in one of the vegetable gardens growing in the shadow of Military Hospital No. 37. The tall, bearded, 24 year old is the eldest of five children living in his Mother’s house. He works hard to maintain a balance between family obligations, time in the field and pursuit of an education. He and his siblings struggle together earning their pay with the cuts and callouses tempering their hands. Each day, they pick, trim and prepare assorted greens for sale. They pluck crops from the soil, remove the small leaves, sever the stock and bind the individual sprigs together with lashings cut from the discarded end pieces. The bundles are put into corrugated boxes bound for markets both local and international. “Some stays here, but almost everything we pull up gets sent to the UK or Europe,” Nuuna explained, while slicing a fibrous strip from a handful of leaves.

The land is irrigated with water drawn from both a well and a stream fed by run-off from city sewers.He says the property is government owned, but not on the supply grid. “I went to see them (the water and housing commission) about pipes many times. They would never talk to me, always said to go andcome (back later). I think they wanted a bribe or something.” Without fresh water, farmers like Nuuna are forced to grow crops using the sources available.

In the city, clean water is a critical commodity and it doesn’t come cheap.Drinking from faucets is rarely advised and potable sources are most likely found in a bottle or sachet. Open sewers carry liquid and solid waste material of all sort. When gutters overflow the result can be devastating.

Last year during the rainy season, Accra was rocked by flooding and the rapid tide of a cholera epidemic. Nearly 6 thousand people fell ill with 80 eventually dying from the disease. Cholera can be treated with rehydration fluids, but amongst infants, the elderly and the infirm death can occur within hours. The youngest victim of the outbreak was only eight days old when her tiny body succumbed to the bacterial infection.
At this point, no solid connection between hospital waste and the outbreak has been established. However, many living nearMH-37 have complained of general poor health and the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that epidemics become virulent when water caches are contaminated.

The Globe newspaper and CIti-fm, developed and broke the medical waste story near the end of January. The news sparked public outrage and in response the AMA (Accra Metropolitan Assembly) formed an emergency fact-finding committee. The investigation found deplorable conditions at the hospital and authored a series of recommendations.The list includes an overhaul of the drainage system, repairs to deteriorating hospital infrastructure and opened the door to charges of criminal negligence.

Hospital administrators were unavailable or unwilling to comment on the situation. The AMA’s official report states the target is to prevent future dumping and endangerment of public health. However, the committee failed to acknowledge the residual realities faced by farmers in the fields of Accra.

Nuuna says, without access to a consistent water supply he has no choice but to continue with current practices. Nearby reservoirs have a high probability of contamination, making crops suspect and continuing to place the public at-risk.

At the market, boxes overflow with produce grown locally, as well as, on farms worldwide. Vesta buys her fruit and vegetables at a well-established stand a few kilometers from MH-37. She picks through each item looking for bumps, bruises or other tell-tale signs of corruption. Her inspection is thorough, but danger is not always visible. “I think they inspect everything before it gets here. The standards boards should be held accountable. I mean, they must test for those kinds of things,right?” She asked, while market girls stayed silent and loaded bags of cabbage, tomatoes and bundled greens into the trunk of her idling jaguar.