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Future of Accra’s Odaw River: a new conversation for eco-modernisation

The seat of the Ghana Government, Accra, is a place of active power, wealth and abundant natural resources, including the eco-assets of the Odaw River. The Odaw River possesses climate, socio-environmental and health benefits, and yet the underutilised and abused by the public in the capital city. The polluted river has influenced people to suggest that it should be covered from the public eyes. Many also believe that water from the river can never regain its natural significance. These views I do not concur. In this text, I am calling for a new conversation to eco-modernise the Odaw River to maximise its multiple contributions to green urban growth, combating microclimatic warming and socio-environmental services.

The eco-situation
SDiiThe ecosystem properties of the Odaw River are severely threatened because urban residents and migrants have done harm to it. The bio-habitat for useful insects, birds, fishes and earthworms necessary for re-building a functional urban biodiversity have been polluted and destroyed. Both domestic and industrial pollution played a greater role in causing the river’s unattractiveness and deteriorated conditions. Wastes of various types are deposited every day into it. The debris of manufactured products from local and international companies and businesses have been thrown into the river (un)consciously – broken computers, radio sets, lorry tyres, destroyed musical cassettes, mobile phones, sim cards and sachet water rubbers are dumped into the river. Industrial wastes, especially e-wastes and plastics are traceable, and credited to be major forces in fueling high flow of surface waters during rainfall and impermeability of flood waters in urban Accra. Conventional industrial practices failed to repair and sustain the Odaw River.

Generally, out of 2,200 tonnes of wastes generated annually, Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) records that nearly 400 tonnes are not collected or properly disposed. And, the collected wastes absorbed nearly 75% of the funds/revenues generated internally thus putting pressure on the budgetary allocations of the assembly. As a result, the uncollected wastes have drifted into most rivers and streams in the inner city. The Odaw River, in particular, has become “landfill” for discharging unwanted toxic substances. Open trading practices partially contributed to devaluation of this once viable river. What can be done to bring natural life into the river’s ecosystems is now an impasse. The unfortunate thing is that public debates about how to restore the river come up only when people are trapped, died or displaced by damaging floods in the city. When urban floods lead to painful disasters, the debate about how to find immediate solution resurfaces. As soon as the flooding ends, discussion concerning the Odaw River also closes. No one is interested.

The continuing pollution of the river is probably because its public values are not clearly known or due to the fact that people have assumed that nothing can be done about its restoration and sustainability.  One of Ghana’s renounced environmentalists, Dr. Letitia Eva Obeng, while delivering the JB Danquah memorial lecture some time ago had observed: ‘The Mediterranean, until recently was in shocking state but the countries bordering it decided to clean it up. And, cleaning up can be done; fish once gain breeds in Thames. Pollution of surface waters can be stopped, and with determination, suitable technologies can be found.’ The Thames River is in the UK. During my learning periods in England in the first decade of the 21st Century, I walked around and saw a better managed river. There are best practices about how to scientifically and practically improve quality of river ecosystems in all over the world. Even in Ghana, we still have unspoilt river zones that offer good drinking water for local population.

Presently, the water in the Odaw River is not clean for drinking. The polluted Odaw River represents sanitation, climate and socio-economic cost. The World Health Organisation and Ghana’s Ministry of Health, for instance, will hardly refute this because the river can have ‘detrimental effects on quality of life and outbreak of infectious diseases’. The consequences of climate impact on the urban society if the eco-assets of the Odaw River completely collapse will be devastating in the future. Therefore, it is important to re-connect residents to urban nature through the promotion of eco-modernisation and sustainable conservation of the Odaw River and its ecosystems.

Linking global goals and the Odaw River     
Urban authorities always envision and want good living conditions for their residents – good health, safety, happiness and comfortable city environments. This is same in Accra. Along the Odaw River, this desire is seemingly elusive but carefully being worked on. And, new all-inclusive actions are urgently needed to realise this vision over time. Raising and sustaining Accra’s Green Index is impossible without modernising the Odaw River’s eco-assets to its best usable status by 2030. Consider the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) #11 of the global agenda 2030? Currently, the polluted river endangered the progress towards the goal #11 of the SDGs and other local urban environmental agendas.  Thus, modernising and sustaining the urban ecosystems in the catchments of the river ought to be a priority – a priority which concerns every Ghanaian. It is not one day task and should not be left to overwhelm the budget of the AMA alone. Every little contribution from us all is required to achieve a just and sustainable Accra through eco-modernisation of the Odaw River. What can urban youth really do to help eco-modernise Odaw River for a better future?


  • AMA, 2011. Accra, Millennium city, Accra.
  • Obeng L.E., 1980. Environmental management and the responsibility of the privileged. The J.B. Danquah memorial lectures series 13, February 1980. Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, Accra.
  • Republic of Ghana, 2007. National health policy: creating wealth through health. Ministry of Health, Accra.



Triggering research leadership for sustainability

As the world reflects on how the concept of sustainability came into being, I decided to pause on the previous article on ‘Celebrating 30 years (1987-2017): is it too late to learn sustainability?’ Thankfully, new leaves are now blossoming and greenlining have emerged for sustainability conversations. This article is written to re-fresh debates about research leadership in the global South. The call for action is to double funding for research in both public and private sectors towards securing global sustainability.

Adapted with permission

Adapted with permission

Global sustainability is a strong desire, which all nations are vigorously pursuing (Stockholm Memorandum, 2011; United Nations, 2016; Sachs et al., 2017). The nations are rallying around the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve this. Undoubtedly, society is changing towards the realisation of the desired global goals. The change is not of evil but full of prospects, which African countries are not exempted from milking. The path to global sustainability is unpredictable and rough, though. Drifting to prosperity in the near future depends on using researched information to invent new technologies, reproduce accurate facts to enrich decisions, and scheming how the benefits derived from natural resources can  reach everyone.

Scale of the research issue
In the global South, weak research capacity often affects the availability of quality data to frame policy and how the policy can be practised to sustainably manage natural resources to create national wealth (Makinda, 2001) to equitably benefit people.  In 2006, the World Bank found that ‘80% of Africa’s agricultural researchers are concentrated in 13 countries, while the remaining 20 % are dispersed in 35 countries across the continent. This uneven concentration of talents affects research priorities, organisations, and financing.’ Makinda similarly identified the research deficit and suggested that attention should be given to ‘capacity building’. The research gap is considerably caused by the funds to organise institutions, deploy technology and equipment, train people, and to embark on field research itself.

Debt, economy and research budgets
The burden of debt on national economies is well-documented. In sub-Saharan Africa, the UN Brundtland Commission indicated that debt reached 31% of export by 1985 (Brundtland, 1987). The debt was US$218 billion in 1987 (Kwapong, 1990) and, in 2001, ‘twenty-nine of 46 countries in the world’ that spent 80% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or 220% of exports on debt servicing were from Africa (Makinda, 2001). Africa’s debt recently reached US$443 billion representing 22.0% of Gross National Income (UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2016). Servicing the debt reduces national budgets with consequential limitations for what amount of fiscal resources is available to allocate to research. Is this not a reality? The intriguing question that follows is ‘do we need global sustainability?’ The choice to spend money on research must be prioritised because of its multiple links to the SDGs.

SDGs as a research opportunity
Countries in Africa are among those in other continents that are inseparable from seeding global sustainability. As leaders contemplate of how to achieve the ambitious international development agendas, the evaluation of the country level achievements of the SDGs has also began to help fine tune the path to the desired goals. The precaution is that identifying realistic indicators to measure the successes and challenges of the SDGs must be informed by scientific research since the indicators can bring development-environment concerns to light on roundtables for critical sustainability assessment (Garnåsjordet et al., 2012). Building a sustainable society requires utilising appropriate indicators scooped from research to effectively influence public international policy, behaviours, discovering new products and delivering the products to reach where they are needed most.

Africa is economically buoyant – and is rapidly expanding in the face of challenges like youth joblessness and digital violence. The activities of informal stakeholders provide foundations for the economic improvements. The smallholders produce, supply and distribute almost 65% of food and 78% of charcoal. Urban street vendors circulate the biggest volume of ‘sachet drinking water’ and consumable organic goods. Soil nutrient is incomplete. Internet connectivity can go off at any time. GMO continues to baffle civil society. Hunger and gender inequalities are troubling across national and social boundaries. The relevance of investing into research to redress the issue of brain-drain in Swaziland’s health sector was re-echoed by Dlamini (2006). Carbon research is another important theme, which requires sufficient funding not necessarily in Africa but in other parts of the world (Rockström et al., 2017). Nowadays, the rationale to increase research funding is necessitated by the global ambition to meet SDG targets. The contemporary data is lacking in regards to most of the SDGs.  For example, Zehra Sthna (@zahra_sethna) based at the IISD recently twitted: ‘There is no data available in African countries to track #SDG Goal 13—Take urgent action to combat #climatechange and its impacts.  via @BrookingsInst’.

2017 SDGIndexFunding research to generate quality results to boost monitoring of the SDGs and measurement of its outcomes ought to be viewed as a chance to expand developmental opportunities rather than an economic cost. The 2017 SDG Index does not profess the view that the level of investment into research will automatically speed or result into a certain level of progress towards achieving the SDGs. Israel invested more into research than Sweden in terms of GDP. Yet, Sweden shows an excellent model of getting closer to achieving the SDG targets. The progress made by Sweden in terms of the SDGs is higher than Israel. The most important thing is that the SDG performance indicators exhibited by Israel are superb as well. Kenya’s investment in research proportionally outstripped that of South Africa but the latter ranked better than the former in the 2017 SDG Index (Sachs et al., 2017). Thus, the link between research investment and the probability that the invested monies can contribute to realising the 2030 Agenda is not linear. What is, however, obvious is that achieving over 90% of the total SDGs in a single country or across the continent by 2030 will depend on the bold decision of leaders to quadruple funding for sustainability research? The current research funding in countries such as Namibia (0.1% of GDP), Botswana (0.3% of GDP), Burkina Faso (0.2% of GDP) and Congo Dem Rep (0.08% of GDP) cannot remain the same (Sachs et al., 2017) till 2030. As at today, the understanding is that cooperation is paramount in putting money, people and other resources together to generate wealth out of research (see Box 1).

Stepping up
How easy is it to get access to research funding from African institutional sources? How much national budget is devoted to applied and advanced sustainability research? Can young researchers easily get post or start research career? How are governments supporting the distribution of new knowledge products derived from research? Is employment statistics on research landscape credible? A combination of factors, including carbon impacts, causing food insecurity are evidenced in Somalia and South Sudan. Population growth has increased millions of hands and mouths around food tables, while the sources of obtaining the food are increasingly threatened by high carbon concentrations. The World Vision says 6.9 million people need food-related assistance in East Africa. Answering the above questions and getting out of the challenges urgently needs new direction in reframing development policy and action-taking, not going the conventional ways. Public policy must encourage funding of research and, in turn, promote utilisation of the research outputs for coming out of the development challenges. Investing adequate finances into sustainability research is about making human lives meaningful. It fulfils the unimaginable aspirations of people beyond complex barriers of territory, gender, faith and cultures. Research investment is not only about generating ‘sustainability books’. It is synonymous with cultivating finest brains to lead and govern society fairly – task research training is capable of doing. The global groundswell of nurturing future young leaders ought to explore research entrepreneurship as one of the areas the expertise of the young leaders can be harnessed to deal with disinterested development challenges. The developmental benefits of research are endless. So, who is to lead the way for research renaissance? Is it the government, business, church or civil society?


  • Brundtland GH. 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: our common future. WCED, Geneva.
  • Dlamini SV. 2006. Brain drain: can everybody be happy? The case of nurses leaving Swaziland for the United Kingdom. A paper presented at the ‘Governance in the Commonwealth: civic engagement and democratic accountability’ conference. Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London. March 11-13, 2006.
  • Garnåsjordet PA, Aslaksen I, Giampietro M, Funtowicz S, Ericson T. 2012. Sustainable development indicators: from statistics to policy. Env Pol and Gov 22:322–336.
  • Kwapong AA. 1990. The challenge of education. In: Obasanjo O and O’rville H (eds.) Challenges of leadership in African development. Taylor and Francis: New York. pp 136-152.
  • Makinda SM. 2001. From natural resources to national wealth: ethical, national interest and policy issues for Africa in the new millennium. UNU-INRA, Accra.
  • Rockström J, Gaffney O, Rogelj J, Meinshausen M, Nakicenovic N, Schellnhuber HJ. 2017. A roadmap for rapid decarbonisation: emissions inevitably approach zero with a “carbon law”. Science 355 (6331):1269–1271.
  • Sachs J, Schmidt-Traub G, Kroll C, Durand-Delacre D, Teksoz K. 2017. SDG Index and Dashboards Report 2017. Bertelsmann Stiftung and SDSN, New York.
  • Stockholm Memorandum (2011) Tipping the scales towards sustainability. 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on ‘global sustainability: transforming the world in an era of global change’. Sweden, 16–19 May 2011.
  • United Nations. 2016. Global sustainable development report 2016. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York.
  • UN Conference on Trade and Development. 2016. Economic development in Africa: debt dynamics and development finance in Africa. (Accessed on 22 November 2017).
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