Kwabena Biritwum Nyarko, PhD. is a professor of Civil Engineering and Provost of the College of Engineering at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. His interest covers hydraulic and water quality modelling of water distribution systems, sanitation technologies, and sustainable water and sanitation service delivery.

Prof. Biritwum Nyarko’s educational journey started in Koforidua in the Eastern Region of Ghana where he attended Madonna School for a brief period before his family relocated to Sunyani and continued at Ridge Experimental School.

He then gained admission to Prempeh College to study science and with a love for infrastructure, he proceeded to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

“I chose civil engineering because I was fascinated by infrastructure. And I think in engineering, if you're fascinated by the magic, you touch a switch, you'll see light or UV. Then that takes you to electrical engineering. If you're fascinated by equipment moving, maybe you move into mechanical. But I was fascinated by buildings, bridges, etc. so I chose civil engineering,” he said.

Despite his infrastructure interest, it was during this time that Prof. Biritwum Nyarko’s love for water and sanitation issues began to take root, sparked by a desire to address the critical infrastructure needs facing his country.

Fortunately, after completing his bachelor’s degree in 1994, he was retained at KNUST for his National Service, where he focused on rural water and sanitation. His tenure at the Training Network Centre further solidified his commitment to improving water access and sanitation in Ghana, especially in rural areas where the need was most acute.

“At that time, Training Network Centre was part of the International Training Network centers focused on supporting rural water and sanitation.  The period from1980 to 1990 was declared the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade, where the message was water and sanitation for all. The decade raised a lot of awareness on water and sanitation issues but the water and sanitation situation in Ghana was not good. Access to water was 56% and sanitation was a paltry 7%. In 1990, we had Ghana Water and Sewerage Corporation that had responsibility for water supply in Ghana,” he said.

He continued: “At that time, out of a staff of almost 4500, only 50 were focused on rural water and rural water supply in Ghana at that time consisted of about 6,000 drilled boreholes fitted with hand pumps. The conclusion was that rural water supply had been neglected in Ghana. And also the approach for delivering water supply had to change. I remember as a civil engineer, we were trained on how to design water treatment plants and supply water. But at the end of the International Drinking Water and Sanitation decade. There was new ways of addressing rural water supply issues.”

This zeal led him to pursue a Ph.D., which he completed with a scholarship in the Netherlands. Armed with newfound knowledge and expertise, Prof. Biritwum Nyarko returned to Ghana, ready to tackle the pressing issues facing his homeland.

Shaping up rural water supply

In 1990, Ghana's population was around 16 million, out of which about 10 million were in the rural areas. Nonetheless, rural water supply was lagging behind. The government therefore formulated a strategy known as a National Community Water and Sanitation Strategy. The strategy had three things Community, ownership and management.

The idea was that if communities own their water supply system and they manage it, it will improve reliability.

This led to a nation-wide technology drive where Department of Mechanical Engineering at KNUST worked on a hand pump known as the VLOM pumps (Village Level Operation and Maintenance pumps). That means the pumps could be operated and maintained at the village level.

“What it means is that if you're in my village and had a water supply and there was a problem, there was no need to travel all the way to the regional office, Ghana Water and Sewage Corporation and look for an engineer. It should be able to manage it at a rural level. So that's community ownership and management. The second aspect of the strategy was use of the private sector to supply goods and services. So private sector. It was brought in to build rural water systems. And the third component was public sector facilitation. And that led to the establishment of Community Water and Sanitation Agency,” Prof. Biritwum Nyarko explained.

Life cycle cost approach

In 2008 while on a trip to the Netherlands, Biritwum Nyarko's PhD supervisor briefed him on a proposal under development by the International Water and Sanitation Center IRC in the Netherlands.

Prof. Biritwum Nyarko engaged in discussions with the center regarding potential participation in the proposal. Although the proposal was nearing completion and deliberations were ongoing about its inclusion of Ghana, Prof. Biritwum Nyarko contributed valuable insights, securing Ghana's involvement in the project.

This project focused on determining the life cycle costs of providing sustainable water and sanitation services, with the aim of ensuring long-term reliability and functionality of infrastructure.

It assessed the costs associated with sustaining water and sanitation services indefinitely. Drawing inspiration from the maintenance practices in the road construction sector, he examined the expenditure necessary to maintain infrastructure effectively. The project sought to ensure the long-term functionality of water and sanitation systems.

By emphasizing the importance of operations and maintenance, the project aimed to mitigate breakdowns and optimize service delivery. The insights gleaned from the research influenced the international water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) arena, offering valuable guidance on resource allocation and infrastructure management.

Through comprehensive asset management plans and capacity-building initiatives, the project empowered stakeholders to adopt a life cycle cost approach in planning and decision-making. Prof. Biritwum Nyarko played a pivotal role in organizing training sessions across multiple countries, responding to the growing demand for knowledge on sustainable water and sanitation practices.

“If you have 200 boreholes with 200 hand pumps, you should make provision for standby hand pumps, because it's possible that some hand pumps will give way. And the asset management plan, it should give you an idea of the number of hand pumps that will have to be replaced. If you don't plan for it, it means... It means you suffer breakdowns. If you use all your budget for new projects, you definitely suffer breakdowns. So this is what we did, and the tools are there.

“From time to time, we do get requests from some districts, can you help us? And in fact, a lot of people were also trained. And I know some projects have taken it up to train districts to prepare proper plans to ensure that services are sustained. So it's more about a planning and budgeting system, specifically for this project. And then what about the parts? Are these imported parts? I think you mentioned... Spare parts? Yes, these spare parts. I don't know whether it's a store-off job, but some of these are imported,” he said.

Through his research and practical interventions, Prof. Biritwum Nyarko’s has played a pivotal role in shaping policies and practices in the water and sanitation sector.

The research yielded significant findings, demonstrating that investing in cost-effective technologies could provide meaningful and sustainable water and sanitation services.

“We prepared a WASH Cost calculator, we prepared WASH Cost benchmarks even to help and plan for water and sanitation services that last, i.e. indefinitely. Through the project, we were able to train a lot of stakeholders. I organized training in the US, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, simply because there was a lot of demand to understand the life cycle cost approach for water and sanitation services. So this is a project that I was really passionate about and I think it made a lot of impact both in Ghana and abroad. Let's come down here because as you said it was undertaken by four countries. Yes. Let's go how it has been adopted here. Have you been monitoring it perhaps?” he explained.

Creating manufacturing ecosystem

Regarding the issue of manufacturing, Prof. Biritwum Nyarko believes that enhancing manufacturing capacity requires the establishment of a vibrant ecosystem conducive to such endeavors.

He reflected on the missed opportunity in the eighties when, despite efforts, KNUST developed a hand pump but was unable to successfully submit it for international use, which could have catalyzed the establishment of factories for mass production.

Prof. Biritwum Nyarko acknowledged that while it's not too late, achieving this goal would necessitate research, production, and the establishment of a supportive ecosystem, including acquiring necessary machinery.

“Well, this takes us to the issue of manufacturing. To enhance our capacity to manufacture, we need a vibrant ecosystem to make that a possibility. What I heard, which I have to verify from our senior colleagues in the mechanical engineering department, is that they designed a hand pump. But if you design a hand pump, there are some processes to go through for certification, standardization, and that comes with money.

“Maybe you have to send it for it to be certified and validated before it can be used. And I can imagine in the Eighties, if we were able to do that, to have one hand pump developed by KNUST, which was accepted internationally and in use, then that could lead to factories to produce those pumps. But unfortunately, we were not successful. It's still not late, but it requires research and then it requires production, the manufacturing. And it requires some ecosystem to get some of the machines in place. I think there's a bit of work before we get to that path,” he explained.

Fortifying with the apps

Transitioning to the topic of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) technologies, Prof. Biritwum Nyarko expressed interest in the advancements in this field, particularly emerging technologies such as smart meters, remote monitoring, e-billing among others.

He indicated that he has been monitoring developments in this technology class space. Prof. Biritwum Nyarko sees great potential in the use of technology to improve water supply systems.

“I think technology is changing the way we do things, enhancing the efficiency and a lot of scope to leverage on technology to improve water supply. Nowadays we have smart meters. We have remote monitoring systems and I might say some of my colleagues here have even worked on a water ATM for the standpipes. So in terms of our capacity to develop the technologies, there's no question about that.

“But after the research, the technology development phase requires a bit of funding and that is where we usually have the issues. For my colleagues in computer engineering who've worked on the water ATM, after the design, you need to produce it. Once you produce it, you need to prototype, test it, refine it before it can be used. And it costs money. So if we don't have a strong ecosystem to support that, it becomes a challenge,” he said.

As Prof. Biritwum Nyarko prepares to deliver his professorial inaugural address on the topic: Universal access to water and sanitation services. A myth or reality?, he reflects on his three decades of dedication to this mission.

With a blend of personal narrative, academic insight, and practical recommendations, he aims to inspire others to join the fight for clean water and sanitation for all.

“I'll talk about three main points. One, why I decided to spend 30 years of my career in water and sanitation. And I'm still looking forward to do more in that area.

“I believe it is an important topic and a game changer for Ghana and beyond. Because to address our water and sanitation problems, we require people. That alone will be an economy on its own. If you look at the number of people in Ghana without water and sanitation, it's not going to be the same. If you look at the number of people without household toilets, over 5 million. To address that, we need people to build the toilets. This will create jobs on the value chain. We need artisans. And once that is done, to operate and maintain the toilet, septic tanks, waste treatment plants, we need people.

“It will create livelihoods. It will make the environment clean. It will make us healthy. So that's the first thing I'll talk about. And the second one is to talk about my academic journey. And what I've done to help address this problem. And finally, I will talk about some recommendations for policy and practice. So this is what you should expect on June 27th when I deliver my inaugural address,” he said.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.