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HEALTH-GHANA: Boreholes That Proved a Lifeline Have Come at a Cost

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Aug 30 2007 (IPS) - Ask people to list the causes of tooth discolouration and they may mention tobacco chewing, or one too many cups of coffee a day. Pose the question in Ghana&#39s northern Nayorigo village, however, and someone might answer: desertification.

According to a 2002-2005 study, over 90 per cent of children living in Nayorigo, a village in Bongo district, suffer from fluorosis. This condition leads to teeth being flecked with white or, more seriously, to stained and pitted teeth. It develops in children of about eight years and younger who consume too much fluoride, and affects the enamel of permanent teeth as they form below the gums. (The survey was conducted by the regional hospital at Bolgatanga, capital of the Upper East region where Bongo is located.)

"The problem in Bongo started in the 1970s when the government at the time caused the digging of boreholes in the effort to provide drinking water to the people, as a result of the desert conditions that had led to the drying up of surface water," says Donatus Akanmugri, who represents Nayorigo in the Bongo district assembly.

What officials didn&#39t know was that the borehole water contained high concentrations of fluoride. Tom Dankwa, a dentist in the capital of Accra, says it has been found that the fluoride level in Bongo&#39s boreholes is about 30 percent higher than the 1.5 milligrammes per litre recommended by the World Health Organisation. In the right amount, fluoride can help prevent cavities.

So, Akanmugri adds, people drank "without knowing what harm they were doing to themselves."

While a number of villages were affected by fluorosis, Nayorigo was "worst hit" says Albert Abongo, a member of parliament for Bongo, as it had no alternative to borehole water.

But, with the effects of fluorosis having been apparent for several years now, why has action not been taken to protect children, perhaps through piping water to the affected areas? While the condition is not associated with tooth decay, it can be a source of great embarrassment.

The Ministry of Health would not provide IPS with comment on this matter.

For Alidu Seidu, however, "This is a clear example of the neglect of the northern regions."

"It is the south-north divide, in the Ghanaian way of doing things. No southern district would suffer any medical condition for this length of time," says Seidu, a project co-ordinator at Social Alert, a non-governmental organisation that conducts civil education in the Upper East region.

Alhaji Adam Mahama, a lecturer at University of Ghana, says the divide dates back to the times of British rule. Colonial authorities simply used the north as a "reservoir of labour" for the mines and cocoa growing regions of the south, he told IPS: "With no education in the area, it has since been left under-developed."

Desertification also continues to pose a problem in Ghana, which has drawn up a national action plan to address the matter.

However, Kingsley Ekow Gurah-Sey – a senior programme officer at the state Environmental Protection Council (EPC) – says a study has yet to be done to determine the exact extent of the problem: "We are now in negotiation with the Canadian International Development Agency to finance a proper assessment of the situation and how best it could be solved…"

According to Roxanne Robert, second secretary in charge of international co-operation at the Canadian High Commission in Accra, "Canada is providing eight million Canadian dollars (about 7.5 million U.S. dollars) over the next five years to strengthen institutions and rural communities to help reverse land degradation and desertification trends."

What is known, Ekow Gurah-Sey adds, is that the Northern, Upper West and Upper East regions are most at risk. (The Upper West region is also found in northern Ghana.)

"We have…observed that surface water and soil water storages have been depleted and streams are drying up more rapidly…" he says. "In the Bongo district, which is worst affected by desertification, no farming can take place and the people have suffered greatly."

The EPC says the practice of setting fire to the bush to prepare land for cultivation is one of the main causes of desertification, as is the felling of trees for fuel.

There are also signs that southern coastal regions are succumbing to desertification.

"Just like how bush burning and uncontrolled tree cutting have been allowed unchecked in the northern regions, some areas in the south have also suffered some form of desertification because of the same land misuse," says George Awudi, programme co-ordinator on desertification for the Ghanaian chapter of Friends of the Earth, an international environmental group.

He notes that there have been attempts to combat desertification in Ghana, such as tree planting.

"Unfortunately, there are some challenges that are making these efforts very difficult," Awudi adds, citing a belief in the Bongo district that anyone who plants a tree will die as soon as the tree grows taller than them.

"As a result, trees that could have solved the problem of wind storms in the area cannot be grown. We are, however, trying to educate the people on what to do."

The use of charcoal, created by burning wood, has been banned in Bongo.

In addition, says Bongo planning officer Damma Mumuni, the governmental White Volta Basin Board is taking steps to prevent the Volta river from drying up in hot weather. The river is Ghana&#39s main waterway; the upper stretch of the river, the White Volta, runs through northern areas affected by desertification.

Furthermore, farmers in Bongo are being assisted by the board.

"In order to off set the difficulties faced by farmers who have lost their livelihood because they cannot farm in the area, the board has – together with the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture – started granting small loans to them under a &#39Land Conservation and Small Holders Rehabilitation Project&#39," notes Mumuni.

These loans are intended to assist farmers in finding alternative forms of employment.

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