Monday, May 9, 2011

May 9th

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
Airfields and hotels have a lot in common.  Mainly, they are busiest at the times when other businesses are not.  For example, holidays, evenings and weekends.  There are many other similarities; they are expected to get it right, first time, every time.   The list goes on, cleanliness, timeliness, smiles, welcome, efficient, etc. Not to mention… expensive.

Recently at an airport in Europe I was charged over three Euro for a small bottle of water, the same price charged in a hotel a little later.  That is more expensive than petrol.  Three Euro, Thirty Eurocent for a third of a litre, equates to around forty Euros - that is over eighty Ghana Cedis – for a gallon of water.

Even if we consider our 500ml ‘sachet’ of water at 10Ghp, that works out to under one Ghana Cedi per gallon.  Go to the hotel or airport and you will pay four or five cedis for a bottle of water– around thirteen cedis, or about six Euro, per gallon.  Water is an expensive commodity, or rather good, clean water is.
Water is necessary to life.  We can go without food for days, but after just a few hours without water we start to make poor decisions and our lips start to crack.  Clean water is an ever bigger issue.   One sip of poor quality water and we are pasted to the toilet seat for days, holding our stomachs and saying ‘ooooohhhhh’.  Twenty-four hours of tummy troubles, from poor quality water, and we are exhausted.   As a pilot, a mouthful of bad water can ground you for a week, or make a flight remarkably dangerous, painful and uncomfortable – especially if your aircraft is single pilot and without a toilet…

Water covers the majority of our planet, composes the largest part of our bodies, is present in our atmosphere, is essential to our existence – water is life.

As pilots we respect the water in the air and observe the water on the ground with great interest.  The ‘colour’ and ‘texture’ of the water can tell us a lot about the impending weather.  The water courses provide navigational signals for us all over the country, especially the magnificent lake Volta and its tributaries.  The rivers and lakes predispose areas to habitation, because of the need for water for survival.  We learn to read these signs and to be aware that, in the extreme, rare and unfortunate instance of a ditching or emergency landing, the availability of potable water may determine our fate more than the quality of the landing.

As I flew along the Volta at the weekend, watching the wide wake of the Dodi Princess, no doubt selling water at the rate of several dollars per gallon, I again watched in amazement (no longer disbelief) vast numbers of people going about their daily lives without access to clean drinking water.

That evening we had a lively discussion over the platter of rice, accompanied by freshly pumped and chilled glasses of water from our borehole.  How many of those people who drink from the lake and other ‘at risk’ water sources are actually aware of the risk they put themselves at?  The answer, sadly, is ‘very few’.  It seems that we have this mistaken ‘received knowledge’ that “Ghanaians are able to drink water from the lake without getting sick”.   It is a great story, but far from the truth.  A simple question to any of the rural communities around the lake regarding their biggest health challenge, and they will tell you in a snap ‘the running stomach’.

What does the World Health Organisation have to say about this: ‘Diarrhoea is the passage of 3 or more loose or liquid stools per day… Infection is spread through contaminated food or drinking-water, or from person to person as a result of poor hygiene. Severe diarrhoea leads to fluid loss, and may be life-threatening, particularly in young children and people who are malnourished or have impaired immunity.

What does that mean to us?  The WHO goes on to state that diarrhoea is responsible for roughly 4 billion people being sick, around the world, every year, of which 2.2 million die.  That is the same as wiping out a city – or even a small country - per year.  In addition, the U.S. CDC points out that nearly ninety percent of these deaths are directly linked to unsafe drinking water, inadequate availability of water for hygiene, and lack of access to suitable sanitation.  Perfectly preventable with education and suitable resources – if only you can reach those people on a regular basis to educate them, encourage them and support them.

Starts to grab your attention a bit?   Think about this for a moment, if you have a stomach problem from poor water issues, you probably also have a poor water source for hand washing, bathing and toilet ‘sanitation’ solutions.  You are caught in an ever diminishing circle of passing-on and self-reinfection.  With it, socio-economic issues ensue.  Children unable to attend school regularly, workers not able to work regularly or at all, and mothers struggling to feed their children through being weakened, re- infecting their own children with a tummy bug.  This is without even considering extreme cases, such as cholera.

Water can be filtered, there are many filter solutions, including a low-cost, low-maintenance solution made in Ghana filter system for rural communities that is under-development in the Eastern Region.   Water can be boiled, but takes time and often tastes ‘not so nice’ once cooled.  SODIS (Solar Disinfection) is a practical solution, and the list goes on.  BUT none of these methods – even GIVING free ‘pure water’ to the people at risk will yield the necessary results.  NO.

There is still a basic lack of understanding of the reasons behind infections, the reason for living a hygienic lifestyle, both personal and community wise, and until that is addressed we are in caught in a web of despair.
‘Not my problem, I live in the city.’, I hear a distant reader mumble.  Not your problem?  Look out the window and watch the man urinating in the gutter and the same waitress who will serve you later shaking hands with the man who just relieved himself without sanitising his hands, and she will probably not wash her hands with clean water, nor as well as she should, before serving you. 

Airports and hotels are clean water and hygiene aware because sickness in their locations is recognised as being disastrous.  I am sure that your business, home and community could gain productivity, health improvements and a happier day, through a simple education moment, reinforced on a regular basis.

No wonder drinking water is so expensive in Europe, they have learned to value it.  Perhaps we need to do something now, before it is too late, to improve the lot of the nation, especially the rural folks whose farming activities are putting food on our tables each day, and whose lot is severely compromised for the lack of sustainable clean water solutions, and the sustainable, regular and applicable health education that goes with it.  The best way to achieve this, in the most rural areas, is by appropriate use of light aircraft, enabling timely and regular contact directly into the remote and inaccessible communities that are strewn across our landscape.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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