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Atlantic Rising: How sea level rises are poisoning water in Ghana

Will Lorimer

2nd March, 2010

In the latest blog the Atlantic Rising team look at how rising sea levels are poisoning local water sources in Western Ghana

In Western Ghana, a sinister new picture of sea level change is emerging: salt water poisoning. 

Rising sea levels have polluted the water sources of thousands of inhabitants, polluting their drinking water and creating an unprecedented rise in salt-related health problems.

Largely ignored in the Ghanaian press, this is a candid portrait of environmental abuse and political mismanagement set to mushroom if current climatic trends continue.

The Volta River

The focus of the problem is Ada, a town of 20,000 people on the Volta river below the Akosombo dam. Over the last fifty years, mismanagement of this river system has reduced the flow of water to the town, allowing sea water to encroach upstream and pollute the water purification plants.

The problem starts at the source of the river in northern Ghana.

'Deforestation has completely removed the canopy layer.  This layer slowed the rate of run off and supplied the spring source,' says Evans Balaara, head of water quality at the Ghana Water Company.

'Evaporation rates have also increased as there is no vegetation to provide shade. Far less water is now reaching Lake Volta than when I was young.'

Rising demand

Rural-urban migration has led to further demands for the lake’s water.

'The [water] infrastructure cannot keep pace with this increase,' says Mr Balaara. 

'At the moment Ghana Water Company cannot meet the demand from the city.'

The government is planning to increase extraction with new plants and wider pipes, further reducing the flow in Ada and allowing sea water to infiltrate further upstream. 

Rising salt levels

'We have results from Ada when there is a spring tide.  The salt levels gets up to 350mg per litre, 150mg in excess of our limit of 200mg per litre,' confirms Mr Balaara.

The medical consequences of this have been dramatic.  Dr Philip Narh of Dangme East District Hospital has found that '2.7% of Ada residents are suffering from chronic heart related diseases. There has also been a dramatic increase in hypertension and stroke relate cases'.

Framed within predictions of future sea level rise the prospects look grim. Mr Balaara conceded, 'If sea level change happens, we are likely to lose Ada. At the moment we don’t have the money to do anything about this.'

But by the time Ada’s first buildings tumble into the ocean, they will tumble from a land already desertified by the salt.

In Ada, sea level did not begin with beach erosion or flooding, it began when the first person turned on their tap to taste the salty water infecting their waterways.

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