Water for Food

Research promotes groundwater protection in Ghana

March 13, 2017

Mustapha Alhassan helps a resident to fetch water from well.

Mustapha Alhassan, PhD student
Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

“…When I got married to my husband and moved to this community, they told me this is the water they drink. I did not believe it until I started drinking it because it is the only water available for me to drink. I am even 8 months pregnant now —and still drinking it. Anytime I am given drugs at the hospital, I am cautioned to use pipe water to take them but I use this water because I have no option.”
—Mary, resident of Kuyellingo, a community in the Bongo district in the Upper East region (UER) of Ghana.

Mary told her story to us while standing next to a “bulga,” a shallow well dug on the bank of a dam. The bulga is one of the most commonly used domestic water sources in the community.

One of the targets of the United Nations’ 7th Millennium Development Goals is to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” Though this target is said to have been attained in Ghana, much more needs to be done to ensure that people like Mary who are residents of rural settlements in the country, and in most cases depend on unregulated sources of water, are protected from contaminated drinking water.

Groundwater, accessed through wells and boreholes, is the main source of water in rural settlements in Ghana. Despite the enormous health and economic benefits of ensuring access to clean water, regulations to protect rural residents from contaminated groundwater are often overlooked. Three out of seven unregulated drinking water sources in the UER contain nitrate-nitrogen beyond the World Health Organization’s recommended levels of 10 milligrams per liter (Kubreziga, 2012). Kubreziga (2012) also reports that about one out of every 12 children in the region stands the risk of exposure to blue-baby syndrome, a harmful condition in babies that is caused by nitrate contamination in groundwater due to water use from unregulated sources.

Agricultural activities contribute to the groundwater pollution in the UER. The UER and the Upper West region had the highest fertilizer use in Ghana from 1997 to 2001 stemming from two large irrigation schemes in the UER (FAO, 2005). At the end of 1980, more than 2,000 boreholes were drilled in the region for domestic water supply. Between 1977 and 1980, the levels of nitrates in groundwater in the region increased significantly due to increased chemical fertilizer use in agriculture and intensification of animal husbandry practices (Duah, 2006). With the recent launch of fertilizer subsidies in Ghana, at an average of 21 percent of the price of fertilizer (Ghana Government, 2015), the fertilizer application rate is expected to increase. This will likely exacerbate groundwater quality problems in rural areas with large irrigation schemes, including the Bongo district. With a lack of potable water sources available to rural residents in Ghana, and for that matter, residents of the Bongo district, it is prudent for policymakers enact groundwater quality management policies that are capable of improving groundwater quality, and thus livelihoods in the rural areas.

Policies to improve groundwater quality in the Bongo district are less likely to achieve their goals if policymakers fail to recognize the value of clean water to residents. After all, groundwater is the main source of water for domestic use in the district. An evaluation survey on water quality would be a useful tool to understand residents’ perceptions about groundwater contamination and the importance of groundwater in their lives. Our research aims to estimate the willingness of residents and famers in the Bongo district to protect groundwater quality. Gauging their willingness to provide feedback is also useful because policymakers can use it to estimate how much value will be created from efforts to protect groundwater in the district. This research also seeks to shed light on groundwater issues in the district and to ignite groundwater policy dialogue in the country.

We surveyed 503 smallholder farmers under the Vea irrigation scheme and 505 residents in Bongo and its surrounding communities. We asked them about the sources they use for domestic water and informed them of research findings concerning groundwater pollution in the district. Table 1 presents farmers and residents’ household water sources. The dominant source of water for domestic use in the district is borehole, followed by hand-dug well. About 90 percent of the farmers use borehole water while about 83 percent of the residents use it. About 26 percent of the farmers’ population use water from hand-dug wells while about 42 percent of residents use water from it. The rest of the water sources in the district are pump-well used by about 9 percent of the farmers and 2.8 percent of residents, and bulga, which is used by about 22 percent of the farmers and 35 percent of the residents. Access to pipe water is very low in the district. Only about 7 percent of the farmers have access to pipe water while about 19 percent of the residents have access to pipe water.


Table 1: Farmers and residents’ household water sources.

Water Sources

Farmers (%)

Residents (%)

Hand-dug well



Pump well



Pipe water










Our farmer survey used two types of information framing. One focused on the environmental benefits of reducing nitrate fertilizer application and the other focused on the human health benefits. We asked the farmers if they would be willing to pay more for 2015-2016 farm year fertilizer prices in order to switch to fertilizers that would not pollute the groundwater with nitrates. We asked the residents if they would be willing to contribute to help farmers protect groundwater by paying more than the 2016 price of a “yellow can” (6 gallons) of pipe water. We found that farmers are willing to pay an average of about GHC 69 (about US$ 17) per acre which is about 43 percent above the price of a “bag” (50 kilograms) of nitrogen phosphorus potassium (NPK) fertilizer during the 2015-2016 farm year. And it would cost each farmer an average of about GHC 449 (US$ 112) per year based on an average of 6.5 bags of NPK used by each farmer per year. Farmers offered health information were willing to pay more to protect groundwater as compared to those offered environmental information. Residents were willing to contribute an average of about 65 pesewas (about US$ 0.16) per yellow can, which is about 3 times the price of a yellow can of pipe water in 2016. It would cost each household an average of 455 pesewas or GHC 4.55 (US$ 1.0) per day if each household used seven yellow cans of pipe water per day as reported by some of the residents who have access to pipe water. We interpret these survey results with caution because access to pipe water is very limited in the district and we used the price of pipe water as a baseline for the price of clean water.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska for financial support of this research. Mustapha’s academic advisers include Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute Faculty Fellows Karina Schoengold and Christopher Gustafson, professors in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Agricultural Economics.

Mustapha Alhassan helps residents to fetch water from bulga.

Smallholder farmer Wahidu at the Vea irrigation scheme in Ghana.

Mary, narrating her story: “…When I got married to my husband and moved to this community, they told me this is the water they drink. I did not believe it until I started drinking it because it is the only water available for me to drink. I am even 8 months pregnant now — and still drinking it. Anytime I am given drugs at the hospital, I am cautioned to use pipe water to take them but I use this water because I have no option.”

Smallholder farmer Wahidu at the Vea irrigation scheme in Ghana
“… I farm under the Vea irrigation and this is my farm. It is two acres of rice and I use six bags of fertilizer.”

4 Responses to “Research promotes groundwater protection in Ghana”

  1. Mohammed Hamdawei says:

    This is a very good research finding. I think it should be made available to Ghana Government to help in their policy formulation for rural dwellers and farmers at large.

  2. Eric Duotey says:

    This scientific research is a through reflection of what many rural folks go through to access quality drinking water in Ghana. Farmers who do what they do to ensure we are well fed are rather those who suffer most because most of them are rural dwellers where access to quality water is a problem . If farmers have no access to quality water, they are more likely to have health challenges which in turn can affect their put. This research must be presented to Ghana government and other stake holders who are concerned with providing quality water for rural folks in Ghana. In fact, every Ghanaian must read this findings.

  3. Linda Kumah says:

    I just read the research findings and I think it’s worth the cost. We need more of such findings to alleviate socioeconomic problems besetting our village folks.

  4. kamal mondal says:

    nice informative helpful post about water and nature.i like it.

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