In Liberia, weather is an issue of health—and even life or death

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Living in Liberia through the country’s wet season, I find myself nostalgic for the relatively dry climate of Vancouver. To witness a true West African monsoon is to realize that western Canada is seldom inconvenienced by more than a drizzle.

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A couple of statistics to explain my point: downtown Vancouver receives an average annual rainfall of 1,590 millimetres. Monrovia: 5,300 millimetres. The capital of Liberia sees almost as much rain during the month of July (1,150 millimetres) as Vancouver does in an entire year.

For many in Liberia, weather is an issue of health, and even life or death.

On a recent visit to Monrovia’s West Point neighbourhood, Thomas Tweh, head of the community’s sanitation committee, explained the problems that come with the wet season.

“When it rains, the water flows through the streets and into the wells,” he said. “Water with feces goes into the wells.”

Lacking access to the city’s water supply, Tweh estimated that West Point relies on wells for 95 percent of its water needs.

He said that residents know that water from the wells is not safe to drink. But for many, the cost of clean drinking water leaves them no choice.

“And the little ones, they drink the well water unknowingly,” Tweh added. “This is how they become sick with waterborne diseases.”

West Point is one of the poorest areas of Monrovia. A July 2012 report on the neighborhood found that 85 percent of households live on less than 4,000 Liberian dollars (US$57) a month (and many, significantly less than that). That same study reported that water pollution is the primary community concern. West Point sits at sea level, and so is especially prone to flooding.

Tweh listed dysentery and typhoid as seasonal problems that come with the rains every year.

“We are talking about diseases like cholera,” he continued. “Just three weeks ago, a child fell sick from some water. We tried rehydration. But within a number of hours, he was gone.”

In Clara Town, another low-income neighborhood in Monrovia, David Jacobs, chairperson for the community, relayed complaints similar to those of Tweh.

“The drainage ditches around this community are very, very small,” Jacobs noted. “They were not meant for this many people,” which is he estimates is around 48,000.

Touring Clara Town, Jacobs pointed to open waterways clogged by piles of garbage. He explained that the community lacks a proper facility for waste, and so people use the drainage ditches as disposal sites.

“When the rains come, the water just goes everywhere,” Jacobs lamented. “Sanitation is the issue here. You get cases of diarrhea.”

Back in West Point, Tweh presented a simple plan that could drastically improve the quality of the community’s well water.

He wants to strip existing wells of their metal linings— which are porous and rust— and replace them with more durable, heavy plastic linings. In addition, Tweh continued, wells with openings at ground level should be raised with concrete barriers so that their entry points always remain above flood levels.

Tweh has identified 50 specific wells for such renovations, and estimates that the cost of each upgrade would be US$100, or US$5,000 to significantly improve the quality of sanitation for a community of some 72,000 people.

Tweh maintained that funding remains the only barrier to his plan. He said that he’s approached several NGOs active in Monrovia, “but everybody is holding on to their money.”

Jacobs similarly has ideas about how to address the sanitation problems he described in Clara Town. Drainage ditches should be widened, he suggested. And open sewers should be covered to prevent people from using them for the disposal of garbage.

But again, there’s a lack of funding.

Both West Point and Clara Town are technically informal settlements— slums, as they are commonly referred. And so while the City does do business with them and is beginning to provide the most basic of social services, neither community is a high priority for the Mayor’s office.

During our interview, Tweh repeatedly returned to the story of the young boy who succumbed to dysentery. He emphasized how easily the death could have been prevented.

“They tried to take the child to the health facility,” Tweh recounted. “But at the end of the day, the child was lost.”

Travis Lupick is a Vancouver journalist and the former managing editor of Straight.com. He is currently working in Liberia with Journalists for Human Rights. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.

Portions of this post were first published on the Journalists for Human Rights website on August 10, 2012.

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