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International Journal of Water

Resources Development
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Supplementing urban water supply with

rainwater harvesting in Accra, Ghana

Kwadwo Owusu & Joseph Kofi Teye

Department of Geography and Resource Development, University

of Ghana, Legon, Ghana
Published online: 25 Jun 2014.

To cite this article: Kwadwo Owusu & Joseph Kofi Teye (2014): Supplementing urban water supply
with rainwater harvesting in Accra, Ghana, International Journal of Water Resources Development,
DOI: 10.1080/07900627.2014.927752
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07900627.2014.927752


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International Journal of Water Resources Development, 2014


Supplementing urban water supply with rainwater harvesting in

Accra, Ghana
Kwadwo Owusu* and Joseph Kofi Teye
Department of Geography and Resource Development, University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana

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(Received 29 January 2014; accepted 21 May 2014)

This article examines the challenges associated with rainwater harvesting and usage in
peri-urban Accra. Data collected from 357 heads of household reveal that rainwater
harvesting has the potential to supplement existing water sources in peri-urban Accra.
However, high investment costs for rainwater harvesting facilities, short-term tenancy
arrangements, the perception that rainwater is not clean, and the unique dry climate of
the Accra Plains emerge as key challenges limiting domestic use of rainwater. Public
education for house owners to invest in rainwater harvesting facilities and
governmental support will be needed to increase investment in rainwater harvesting,
purification and usage.
Keywords: rainwater harvesting; urban water; rainfall variability; Accra; Ghana

Although water supply is critical in ensuring human well-being, the worlds supply of
potable water is steadily decreasing (MacDonald, 2007). Even though the percentage of
the global population that has access to potable water rose from 79% in 1990 to 82% in
2000 and then to 89% in 2010 (WHO/UNICEF, 2000, 2012), many people in poor regions
of the world are facing water shortages (Cosgrove & Rijsberman, 2000). It is predicted that
if current trends are not halted, about 2 billion people will not have access to potable water
by the middle of this century (Parmar, 2003). Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest
water supply coverage, with only 61% of its population having access to improved water
supplies (WHO/UNICEF, 2012). It is estimated that 50% of Africas population will be
affected by water stress by 2025 (Malley, Taeb, Matsumoto, & Takeya, 2009). While the
problem of inadequate water supply has historically been more pronounced in rural areas
than in urban centres (Efe, 2006), some cities in the developing world are also
experiencing serious water stress. According to Handia, Tembo, and Mwiindwa (2003),
water shortages in some cities in the developing world have been caused by a lack of
financial resources to expand water supply infrastructure, by mismanagement, and by
rapid growth in urban population.
In recognition of the need for improved access to potable water supplies in the
developing world, one of the Millennium Development Goals is to halve the number of
people who lack access to potable water by 2015 (United Nations, 2000; see also Carter &
Danert, 2003; Kahinda, Taigbenu, & Boroto, 2007; Malley et al., 2009). Although figures
on the proportion of the global population with access to improved water are contested in
view of the fact that the criteria for defining improved water source are not clear,
available data indicate that since the beginning of the global campaign to achieve the

*Corresponding author. Email: kowusu@ug.edu.gh

q 2014 Taylor & Francis

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K. Owusu and J.K. Teye

Millennium Development Goals, an estimated 1.6 billion people have gained access to
safe water. However, a significant proportion of the worlds population still urgently
requires access to safe drinking water (United Nations, 2008). Many strategies have been
adopted to increase access to potable water supply in developing countries, including
expansion in urban water supply infrastructure and the construction of boreholes. Another
strategy is the utilization of additional sources of water to supplement dominant or existing
sources (Opare, 2012). In line with this alternative strategy, rainwater harvesting (RWH),
an option which has historically been adopted in areas where conventional water supply
systems have failed to meet the needs of the people (Malesu, Sang, Odhiambo, Oduor, &
Nyabenge, 2006), is being promoted to solve the problem of water scarcity in some urban
areas of the developing world (Baguma, Loiskandl, Darnhofer, Jung, & Hauser, 2010).
Ghana is one of the countries where in recent years government officials and
development partners have emphasized the use of rainwater. This is because the water
supply situation in the country has been deficient for a long time (Gyampoh, Idinoba, &
Amisah, 2008). People in rural Ghana still depend on surface streams, lakes and dug-outs
to meet their domestic water needs. Urban water supply systems are also faced with two
major problems. First, limited supplies have resulted in unmet demand. Second, demand is
skewed: the more affluent urban areas have reliable water supplies, but the poor and people
in peri-urban areas have very limited access. In Accra, for instance, the inner city and highincome residential areas have regular water supply, while peri-urban areas do not receive a
regular supply of potable water.
RWH has the potential to help solve the problem of water stress in peri-urban areas in
Ghana, given the relatively high rainfall over the country from 800 mm to 2000 mm per
annum (Owusu & Waylen, 2009). Even though this potential has been acknowledged by a
number of development practitioners and government officials, the factors that affect
rainwater usage by households in urban Ghana have not been fully examined. Against this
background, this article examines the challenges of rainwater harvesting and usage in periurban Accra.
Study sites
Data were collected from Kwabenya and New Bortianor, two peri-urban communities in
Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Both communities are in the coastal agro-ecological zone,
which experiences two maxima of rainfall annually. While the major rainfall period is
from April to June, the minor rainy season extends from September to November, and both
yield an annual total rainfall average of 800 mm (Ofori-Sarpong & Annor, 2001). The two
study communities were selected because they both face water supply problems. This
choice is based on the understanding that historically, domestic RWH has been practised
wherever conditions for other means of water supply have been particularly difficult
(Malesu et al., 2006).
Of the two settlements, Kwabenya, in the northern part of Accra, is relatively larger. Its
residents are mainly in the middle-income working class. The majority of the houses in
this community are not connected to the urban water supply system and therefore depend
on boreholes, water vendors and rainwater to meet their domestic needs. A few houses are
connected to the urban water supply system, but water rarely runs through the taps in this
community. New Bortianor, a relatively smaller settlement, is located on rugged terrain in
the southern part of Accra. Its residents are mostly middle class. Although this community
lies very close to the Weija Dam, the main source of water for many parts of Accra, it faces

International Journal of Water Resources Development

water supply problems as a result of the inability of the Ghana Water Company to
effectively pump water to houses along the steep slopes of the hilly landscape.

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Data collection and analysis

This research relied on primary data collection instruments in the form of semi-structured
interviews and non-participant observation. Such a triangulation of methods was deemed
appropriate in view of the strengths and weaknesses of dichotomous approaches (Bryman,
2007; Castro, Kellison, Boyd, & Kopak, 2010; Teye, 2012). In the absence of any reliable
sampling frame, a house-listing exercise was first conducted in these two communities in
February 2011. Using a simple random-sampling technique, a total of 400 houses were
selected in the two communities, with the numbers in each community proportional to
population size. Trained research assistants visited the selected houses to carry out the
semi-structured interviews, speaking to one household head on behalf of all individuals
living there. Where there was more than one household living in the same house, a simple
random-sampling technique was used to select only one of them for the interview. Where
the household head was not available, the next person in charge was interviewed.
In all, 357 household heads were interviewed: 216 in Kwabenya and 141 in New
Bortianor. Of the 357 households investigated, 108 had RWH facilities, which were
physically examined by the research team. The household heads of this group answered
questions on various issues, such as rainwater use, cost of RWH systems, quality of
rainwater, and challenges associated with the use of rainwater. In those households
without RWH facilities, respondents were also interviewed on sources of water,
perception of rainwater quality, and reasons why they had not installed a RWH system.
In addition to the primary data gathered, annual rainfall data from 1961 to 2010
obtained from the Ghana Meteorological Agency (2011) headquarters in Accra was also
analyzed using z-scores. This information was analyzed to demonstrate how rainfall
distribution poses challenges to reliance on RWH to meet water needs.
Rainwater use in the study communities
Of the studied 357 households in the two selected peri-urban communities, 324 (90.8%)
harvested rainwater for potable or non-potable use. Cooking, bathing and dish washing
constituted the major potable uses. Only 31 (8.7%) of the households investigated stated
that they sometimes drank rainwater. Non-potable uses included flushing of toilets,
washing of cars, construction purposes, and watering of gardens.
Despite the high level of rainwater usage in the studied communities, it constituted the
dominant source of water for only 51 (14.3%) of the selected households. The interviews
revealed that this is the case because many households lack suitable facilities for
collecting and storing adequate water for the household. In fact, only 108 (30.3%) of
households had invested in such facilities. The majority of interviewed households
supplement water obtained from boreholes, tankers (water vendors), and taps with
rainwater. Those without RWH facilities harvest rain on ad hoc basis. Even for most of the
households with RWH facilities, water storage is so small that harvested water normally
lasts for a maximum of 7 days.
Even though both communities face water supply problems, households in Kwabenya
were more likely to invest in RWH facilities than their counterparts in New Bortianor.
As shown in Table 1, while 38.9% of households in Kwabenya have RWH systems, only

K. Owusu and J.K. Teye

Table 1. Distribution of households with RWH facility by community of residence.

Households with RWH facility Households without RWH facility
New Bortianor

24 (17.0%)
84 (38.9%)

117 (83.0%)
132 (61.1%)

141 (100.0%)
216 (100.0%)

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Note. X 2 19.43, d.f. 1, P , 0.05.

17.0% of households in New Bortianor do. A chi-squared test of independence shows that
this difference is significant. Further in-depth interviews show that variations in the cost of
water sold by water vendors in the two localities is partly responsible for this difference.
The cost of water at New Bortianor, which is very close to the Weija Dam, is much lower
than in Kwabenya. For instance, a 9000-litre tanker of water costs about GHS 120 (USD
60) in Kwabenya, twice the price in New Bortianor. This suggests that the low cost of
water supplied by vendors partly serves as a disincentive for the installation of rainwater
harvesting facilities.
Rainwater harvesting facilities
According to Agarwal and Narain (2003), RWH involves the collection and storage of
rainwater as well as other related activities aimed at conserving and utilizing water
efficiently. Three key components of RWH systems have been identified in the literature.
The first component is the collection surface or catchment area. This can be roof-tops or
the collection of sheet runoff from man-made ground or rock catchments (Che-Ani,
Shaari, Sairi, Zain, & Tahir, 2009). Roof-top harvesting is commonly used in communities
with good roofing materials. Water harvested by this method is less vulnerable to
contamination than with a ground or rock catchment. Ground catchments include
impervious surfaces and impermeable soils. These methods are commonly used in areas
where annual rainfall is low or suitable roof-top area is not available. Rock catchments are
constructed by erecting walls to seal off natural depressions and create storage reservoirs.
While these catchments are relatively cheaper to construct, they require suitable sites
(Agarwal & Narain, 2003).
The second component is guttering, which intercepts and transports roof runoff into
the storage facility. The third key element is water storage facilities. This is usually the
most expensive component, as it is expected to be large enough to buffer against prolonged
droughts (Opare, 2012). Apart from these three key elements, optional additional elements
include systems for filtration to remove debris from captured water, for treatment, and for
delivery (Che-Ani et al., 2009).
In both communities studied, households mainly use their roof-tops for water
collection. In these peri-urban communities, houses are mostly built with corrugated iron
sheet, which generally provides a very good surface for water harvesting. Guttering is also
relatively cheaper to design in peri-urban Ghana. Most of the houses have used iron sheet
to design the gutters. There have been claims in the literature that gutters do not constitute
any additional cost since they normally form part of the roof design (Thamer,
Megat-Johari, & Noor, 2007). This assertion is partly true, but in situations where many
households share a common compound, there could be conflicts over where to install the
guttering component. In many cases, tenant households are required to obtain permission
from house owners before installing the guttering system and permanent storage facilities.
It was revealed that some landlords have refused to allow tenants to install these

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International Journal of Water Resources Development

Figure 1. A typical underground rainwater storage facility at Kwabenya, Accra, Ghana.

components, claiming that such arrangements would create tenancy complications. The
storage facilities in most of the houses observed were simply made of 200-litre containers.
A few wealthy households have also constructed underground chambers (see Figure 1).
Optional additional elements (i.e. filtration, water treatment and delivery systems)
were not present in most of the houses. However, respondents stated that they used
traditional methods to ensure that water is clean for potable uses, including allowing the
debris to settle, and adding alum and boiling the water.

Challenges associated with rainwater harvesting and use in peri-urban Ghana

Analysis of the data gathered shows that a number of challenges are associated with
rainwater harvesting and use in peri-urban Accra. The high cost of RWH infrastructure and
land ownership complexities rank as the major challenges. Water quality and unreliable
rainfall are also disincentives to investing in RWH in Accra. In the analysis that follows,
these challenges are discussed more fully.

Cost of infrastructure and house ownership complexities

As mentioned, only 30.3% of the households surveyed had constructed both collection and
storage facilities for storing water for more than 7 days. Very large storage facilities
(which could store water for more than 2 months) were virtually absent in the houses
investigated. Further interviews show that the high cost involved in the construction of
such RWH facilities serves as a disincentive. It costs about GHS 5000 (USD 2500) to
construct a small underground storage facility that can store water for up to 1 month for a
four-person household. Families do not have the money for such investments.
In addition to financial constraints, house ownership status (type of tenancy
arrangement) is a major challenge to investing in rainwater harvesting in peri-urban Accra.
Many of the households that had invested in RWH infrastructure were owner-occupied.
As shown in Table 2, while 48.9% of the households living in their own houses (owneroccupied) had invested in RWH facilities, only 13% of those in rented houses (tenants) had
done so.

K. Owusu and J.K. Teye

Table 2. Distribution of households with RWH facility by type of tenancy.

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Living in a relatives house

Households with
RWH facility

Households without
RWH facility


69 (48.9%)
18 (13.0%)
19 (30.6%)
2 (12.5%)
108 (30.3%)

72 (51.1%)
120 (87.0%)
43 (69.4%)
14 (87.5%)
249 (69.7%)

141 (100.0%)
138 (100.0%)
62 (100.0%)
16 (100.0%)
357 (100.0%)

About 162 (65.1%) of the 249 households without RWH facilities cited short-term
tenancy arrangements as the major challenge hindering investment in RWH facilities. The
tenants explained that house owners tend to view such tenant investments as complications
to their tenancy agreements; landowners want to retain the flexibility to terminate tenancy
agreements on short notice. This implies that allowing a tenant to make a major investment
will take such flexibility away unless the house owner has ready cash to repay the tenant.
This finding is consistent with studies carried out in rural Ghana (see e.g. Opare, 2012).
Tenants of rented houses are equally reluctant to make large investments in RWH
facilities, since such disbursements may tie them to their current accommodation longer
than their future situations may permit. Instead, tenants are more inclined to invest in
smaller and mobile storage facilities, usually consisting of plastic containers. As identified
in rural Ghana by Adjei-Nsiah, Leeuwis, Giller, and Kuyper (2008), migrant workers in
Accra are equally reluctant to make large investments in water storage facilities. This is
because most of them may want to go back to their home towns after staying in Accra for a
few years.
Water quality concerns
Rainwater collection systems are commonly believed to provide safe drinking water
without treatment, because the collection surfaces (roofs) are isolated from many of the
usual sources of contamination (Moseley, 2005). However, 56 (22.5%) of the households
without RWH facilities explained that they suspect the quality of rainwater was not good
for potable use due to debris during the dry season, bacteria and bird droppings, as well as
the danger of the rainwaters being polluted by eggs laid in gutters and storage facilities.
On the other hand, 101 (93.5%) of the 108 households with RWH infrastructure said
rainwater was safe, and many used it to cook, though they rarely drink it. Evaluations of
rainwater quality seem to be based on perceptions rather than scientific analysis.
Rainwater quality in Ghana has generally been found to be good, but it is also usually
affected by contamination, depending on the facilities used in collection and storage
(Barnes, 2009).
Unreliable rainfall in Accra
Rainfall amounts and distribution are crucial in relying on rainwater harvesting. In periurban Accra, however, total annual rainfall is low and there is high variability at the
seasonal, annual and multi-decadal scales (Ofori-Sarpong & Annor, 2001). Despite the
southerly location of Accra and the fact that it enjoys a double-maxima rainfall regime, its
annual average rainfall is even lower than that of northern Ghana, which has an annual
average rainfall exceeding 1000 mm (Ofori-Sarpong & Annor, 2001; Owusu & Waylen,

International Journal of Water Resources Development

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Figure 2. Total annual rainfall for Accra, 1961 2010, showing high inter-annual and multidecadal variability.

2009). Analysis of empirical data from the Ghana Meteorological Agency shows that the
long-term (1961 2010) mean annual rainfall total in Accra is 790.6 mm, with a coefficient
of variation (CV) of 32%. This high CV indicates high uncertainty in the rainfall
distribution in Accra (Figure 2).
Standardized rainfall deviations, as shown in Figure 3, based on data for the same
period, demonstrate the multi-decadal nature of rainfall distribution in Accra and indicate
that the last 20 years have mainly been below the long-term mean. The implication for
household water supply is that in the decades of low rainfall, reliance on RWH will be
risky. Seasonal analysis of the available data also indicates that almost all the rain in Accra
(74.67%) is restricted to the summer months, with only a small amount (25.33%) falling in
the dry season. As shown in Figure 4, the average rainfall for the months of December,
January and February is 52.8 mm (with a CV of 82.8%) while the average for the months
of June, July and August is 308.7 mm (with a CV of 54.7%). The dry seasons CV of
82.8 % implies that many dry seasons do not record any significant rainfall that could be
relied on. Unsurprisingly, of the 108 households with RWH facilities, 96 (88.9%) reported
that the unreliability of the rainfall and the long dry season from November to March were
the major challenges associated with rainwater usage. The respondents also reported

Figure 3. Standardized rainfall deviations for Accra, 1961 2010. Many of the years since 1980
have been below the long-term average.

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K. Owusu and J.K. Teye

Figure 4. Seasonal rainfall distribution, Accra, 1961 2010. The greater part of the rainfall occurs
during summer.

observing that fluctuations in rainfall are getting worse over the years. To mitigate these
challenges, respondents said they need to construct large storage facilities, but their
finances and land availability do not permit it.
Discussion and conclusions
The peri-urban areas of Accra have a high level of unmet demand for water and have
resorted to RWH to supplement their needs. Over 90% of the households in Kwabenya and
New Bortianor are involved in RWH. However, as old as the technology of RWH may be
in Ghana, only a third of the households investigated have made appreciable investments
in facilities to collect and store rainwater for more than 1 weeks usage. Tenancy
arrangements are the single most important factor determining investments in RWH
facilities. Tenants cited the desire of house owners to be able to evict them on short notice
as a reason for denying them permission to invest in RWH facilities. At the moment, there
are a few tenancy laws in Ghana, but these are often poorly enforced because the demand
for housing is far higher than the supply. Tenants are therefore practically not protected and
could easily be ejected by house owners. The formulation and enforcement of tenancy laws
that would support long-term tenancy agreements and refund of deposits to evicted tenants
would go a long way toward encouraging investments in RWH facilities in Accra. We also
recommend that the government make it a requirement that house owners construct RWH
facilities. This will ensure that tenants can use rainwater facilities just as they use other
facilities, such as toilets and bathhouses, that are constructed by house owners.
The high cost of rainwater harvesting systems, especially the storage facilities, is a
challenge to RWH. Given the very high level of poverty among some urban dwellers in
Ghana, it is unlikely that many poor tenants will be able to cover the current cost of
constructing large underground storage facilities. The government can help solve this
problem by providing resources for Ghanaian scientists to develop low-cost tanks that are
durable, affordable and backed by technologies that can easily be assimilated by poor people.
The findings also suggest that rainwater quality perception among the people of
Kwabenya and New Bortianor is an important drawback in investments in RWH facilities.
Given that their concerns are largely based on perceptions rather than scientific evidence,
there is a need to conduct a thorough scientific investigation into the quality of rainwater in

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International Journal of Water Resources Development

the city. This should be done in different catchment areas, since the literature indicates that
rainwater quality may vary across roof types and locations (Moseley, 2005). The results of
such investigations could be used for public education to promote RWH in Ghana. It must
be mentioned, however, that rainwater harvesting and usage can still be promoted even if
perceptions of quality do not change significantly. This is because most households
currently have no problem using rainwater for washing and flushing of toilets. These two
uses consume about 40% of the water that is used inside the home (Vickers, 2001).
Consequently, the use of rainwater for these two purposes will go a long way toward
solving the problem of water stress in peri-urban Accra. Meanwhile, public education will
also be useful in reducing contamination and thereby enhancing water quality.
As suggested by Barnes (2009), coarse filtering of rainwater at the inlet and foul-flush
devices can prevent debris from entering the water storage tanks. Households must
therefore be encouraged to use these filtration systems. It is also recommended that all
inlets and outlets be screened to prevent animal access. These measures will definitely
enhance the quality of the rainwater.
The study also shows that the unique climatology of Accra and the south-eastern
coastal plains of Ghana, which is associated with low mean annual rainfall and higher
inter-annual variability, serves as a disincentive for investment in RWH facilities. The low
rainfall and high inter-annual variability create the additional burden of investing in larger
RWH facilities, which is constrained by finances and land availability. There is a need for
studies of the contemporary rainfall trends as well as future projections to inform
investment in RWH in the Accra Plains.

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