Friday, January 31, 2014

SNRAS student aims to improve quality of life in Ghana with her research

By the time Josie Sam, a SNRAS doctoral student, completes her degree in the coming year, she will have come up with a model for sustainable water projects in developing countries.

Sam recently returned from several months in Ghana, where she conducted extensive interviews with village residents. “I want to help sustain rural water projects,” Sam said. “We have learned from experience it’s no good just fixing pumps. They need a long-term supply of clean water.”

Josie Sam (at right) chats with children at a school in the Ajumako District of Ghana.
The key may be empowering women with the tools and skills to repair water pumps. “Giving women technical training was not part of the original design,” Sam said. But once the idea was presented by an engineer, the women took hold of it. “I could just see their confidence grow,” Sam said.

“In the past when a pump was broken it might take months to get it repaired. Now I see women taking the initiative. Some have gathered stones for drainage and one even painted the pump that was turning rusty. The confidence the women showed was pleasant to see. They are translating it into doing their other things and taking ownership.”

While in Ghana Sam did an internship sponsored by the UAF Resilience and Adaptation program with the Environmental Health Department in the Ajumako District, assessing the needs for water, sanitation and hygiene in elementary schools. She also participated in a UNICEF training on water, sanitation and hygiene.

Sam has been a student at UAF since 2009, first earning her master’s degree, then going on to work on a Ph.D. Her advisor, Associate Professor Susan Todd, said, “Josie's work on how to improve rural water systems in Ghana is a very important area of research. She's ideally suited to this, since she speaks the local language and has years of experience in that district, plus people trust her.”

When Dr. Todd visited Ghana, she noticed that Sam can be tough when she needs to be. “People respect her for that,” Todd said. “But can also empathize with her respondents and they know she is there to improve their access to clean water. Ghana is blessed to have someone like her. Here at SNRAS, Josie is also a mentor to both undergraduate and graduate students. All of us have learned a lot from her.”

Sam firmly believes that fixing problems for people will not create a sustainable system. Her dream is to find a way that wells can continue to provide clean water to rural villages. “The challenge is to find exactly what helps,” she said. “The lessons we learn will be applicable over the world. We are looking at guidelines in jointly managed projects, such as management, financial commitment, active participation of the community, positive attitude, perception of the importance of water facilities, demographics of the village. We are on the lookout for other indicators.”

Sam’s research is important because of the value of water to health and safety. “Water is important for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing clothes,” she said. “Many people are using traditional sources such as streams or rivers that may be contaminated.”

In communities without pumps, people must travel up to two miles to haul polluted water back to their homes. “Collecting water is the work of women and children,” Sam said. “Some of them spend as much as four hours a day fetching water.”

In Ghana, the original wells were dug by the government in the early 1990s. Many of them broke down two or three years later. “Some women understand the importance of clean water and they do not give up.”

Sam believes in the project so much that she and her “second family,” Lewis and Judith Shapiro of Fairbanks formed the Nyarkoa Foundation in 2007. The foundation was created to develop and fund projects to provide sustainable sources of clean water for the rural population in the Ajumako Enyan Essiam District of the Central Region of Ghana. It is a non-profit 501c(3) corporation chartered in Alaska. Since its inception, all donations to the foundation have been used for project expenses in Ghana; administrative and travel costs have been, and will continue to be, paid by the officers of the foundation.

For a student from Ghana, it would be hard to select a place any more different from home than Fairbanks but Sam has adapted to life in Fairbanks quite well. “It’s a really friendly atmosphere,” she said.

“Going to UAF has been very rewarding. It’s been everything I hoped it would be. The professors are supportive and helpful. It has opened avenues for me.”

Josie Sam (at left) interviews a village resident in Ghana.

A village well in Ghana. (Photos courtesy Josie Sam)

Related post:
Ghanaian student adapts to Fairbanks lifestyle, SNRAS Science and News, June 100, 2009, by Nancy Tarnai

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