Water and the wealth paradox

Wealth is a huge environmental paradox. On the one hand, increased wealth means increased consumption, such that Americans consume at least a hundred times more energy and resources than their peers in many developing countries. On the other hand, environmental protection is often a privilege conferred by (relative) wealth—people in chronic poverty are unlikely to be able to worry about things like whether their meat is grass-fed, and even if they’re aware of environmental issues, they likely don’t have the resources to address them. Most low-income Americans can’t afford organic produce, and many low-income areas are “food deserts”, where buying anything fresh and green simply isn’t an option.
 Ghana (along with, I suspect, many developing countries) provides some interesting examples of this paradox. Resource consumption here is incredibly low. Ghanaians are adept at repairing almost anything, and very few things get truly thrown away. Stereo systems, cars and bikes are all refurbished many times, well past the point when an American would have thrown them away. Village houses are made out of mud, sticks, wood and occasionally concrete. In rural areas, few people have running water or electricity. Even in cities, power and water supplies are unpredictable. Most Ghanaians have never left the country, and very few have left West Africa.
Without a doubt, the average Ghanaian consumes far less than virtually any American. And yet, there are environmental problems here that seem as if they’d be simple to solve with a bit more money. One of the biggest waste sources in Ghana, as far as I can tell, is water bags. While Ghana’s municipal water authorities claim that tap water is drinkable, Ghanaians are rightfully skeptical of this claim. Pretty much everyone living outside of cities (and many people in cities) don’t have running water at home. And the city water supply here in Koforidua is very unreliable—several Burro employees haven’t had water at home for almost a month.
With drinkable tap water a distant dream, virtually everyone buys sachets of water to drink. These are small, 500ml plastic bags full of purified water. A bag of 50 sachets sells for 1.2 cedis, or about 75 cents. So it’s a relatively inexpensive way for people to drink water. The problem with this is that it creates a ton of disposable plastic bags which are thrown away. And Ghana has virtually no trash collection infrastructure. On the side of almost every road in town, there’s a deep concrete trench which functions as a sewer, and this is where many of the bags end up. They’re all over streets and sidewalks, and they just stay there.
A recent issue of the Ghana Daily Graphic, one of the country’s many newspapers, ran an opinion piece about plastic waste. Apparently, trash dumps in Accra are rapidly filling up, and no one is willing to open a new dump, largely because of NIMBY (not in my backyard) concerns. The author of the piece implored Ghana to wake up and ban plastic bags entirely, something she says several other African countries have already done.
I can’t comment on the viability of this proposal, since I have little to no understanding of Ghanaian politics or environmental regulations. A lot of plastic usage here seems, to me at least, superfluous. At the market, vendors seem to almost want to give you as many (identical, small, black) plastic bags to take your produce home in; if you say you don’t need a bag, they look at you like you’re a space alien. So I’m sure there’s room for reduction without fundamental lifestyle changes. At the same time, I find it hard to imagine something, short of truly clean drinking water available to everyone, which will stem the tide of used water sachets. It’s possible that banning bags would result in people coming up with another cheap solution to get drinking water to people, but I have a hard time imagining what that would be. Bottled water is also widely available, but much more expensive: a 1.5 liter bottle costs about 1 cedi, or 66 cents, which puts it out of reach for average Ghanaians. Not to mention that plastic bottles are hardly the solution to the plastic bag problem. Other water purification options, such as filters or chemical treatment, are obviously well out of people’s price range.
So how do we reduce this plastic waste? Developing more—building a reliable water infrastructure that people trust to consistently deliver potable water—would certainly help. There’s a lot more to say here, about water pollution, privatization, governance, capitalism, social justice and a whole lot of other things, but I’ll save it for later.
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