Professor Esi Awuah – Environmental sanitation is a way of life

Professor Esi Awuah – Environmental sanitation is a way of life
10 min read

Environmental sanitation affects every country’s health status, growth and development. It should be looked at and practiced as indispensable rather than being a luxury.

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In Ghana, so many people live under highly insanitary conditions which expose them to many environmental hazards and infectious diseases.

In Levers in Heels’ exclusive interview with Professor Esi Awuah, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Sunyani, Ghana, we explore how the country can promote and improve Environmental Sanitation.

Professor Mrs. Esi Awuah (Photo Credit:

Prof. Mrs. Esi Awuah completed both her Ordinary and Advanced level education in Akim Oda and Aburi Girls Secondary School in 1973 and 1975 respectively. She then enrolled in the Biological Sciences program at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana for a Bachelor of Science degree. After her national service, she obtained a WHO scholarship to study Environmental Science at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York in the USA.

Her career as a lecturer officially begun at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in 1986, at the Department of Civil Engineering. She became a Senior Lecturer in 1996, and an Associate Professor in 2002. She has taught several courses at KNUST, the University of Cape Coast and the University of Education Winneba at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

As a distinguished researcher and with special interests in water supply, sanitation, waste water treatment, hygiene, environmental and risk assessment, she has supervised several water quality analysis projects which were carried out to raise awareness on the pollution of several streams in urban areas and ground water contamination from on-site sanitation systems.

Prof. Mrs. Esi Awuah received the UNESCO Mondialogo Award in 2007 for innovative research in engineering. She was also recognized by the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development in Ghana during the international year of sanitation. In 2011 she received the best research award for environment, water and sanitation during the first National Science Congress in Ghana.

  • How can Ghana promote and improve Environmental Sanitation?

“In brief, I will say that Ghana must enforce its environmental sanitation policy and be committed to the goals. Because sanitation is a way of life, people must understand what it means and learn to appreciate the values of sanitation. By so doing it will be easy to implement the policy.

Permit me to define sanitation as protection of one’s health and that of others through the proper management of wastes. I group  sanitation into three main categories bordering on waste management: 1) Liquid waste, 2) Solid waste and 3) Hygiene.

The liquid waste includes the management of human faeces which is the major source of several diseases affecting people in mostly the developing world and waste water from the bathrooms, laundry  and kitchens. Because human faeces have very peculiar characteristics in terms of its texture, odor and pathogens, toilet technologies have become an issue and many people these days are equating sanitation with provision of toilets. In actual fact, the toilet provision provides a receptacle to receive the human faeces but the total environmental sanitation ensures that the faeces or the facial sludge is treated and made safe before disposal into the environment.

Since human beings produce waste every day, there must be plans to manage it properly. Managing waste will require a place to hold it at home or the place it is generated at, a site where it will be treated or recycled and finally a site for the burying of the residual.

As a nation, we have planned without adequate sites for storage, treatment and disposal. This is a big challenge that we need to look at. I wish to recommend that based on the amount of waste we generate on the average, 0.8 kg of waste, 5% of the total land area for human settlement must be used for purposes like that. Have we really done that? Instead, we are managing waste on an ad hoc basis with no place even to store waste. No wonder our cities and towns are littered with waste and our drains are choked.  Our planning is like we are a zero waste producing society, but in practice it is not. If we want a zero waste production society, we should come out with technologies that will treat waste on site and also recycle and re-use waste generated on site.

Hygienic practices are important for enhancing environmental quality. To do this everybody must practice hygiene. Making a conscious effort to practice it will become one’s way of life and finally lead to a character that you will live with until you die. Hygienic practices should be practiced by all. As one practices hygiene, one grows up with it and it becomes a character. Failure to promote hygienic practices in the Ghanaian culture will lead to improper handling of waste which will ultimately lead to the spread of diseases.

For solid waste, the national environmental policy should be towards a zero waste production society in our daily activities. For example we must avoid using plates and glasses made of plastics and styrofoam. Packaging of items to minimize waste generation is also laudable. Materials for packaging could be recycled.

For liquid waste, which is mainly grey water, we should recycle the water from the bathrooms and kitchens.

I would like to emphasize once more that Environmental Sanitation is a way of life and we must educate the public to practice and enforce the sanitation by-laws.”

  • How can we engage the youth in Environmental Health?

“Environmental health to me is synonymous with environmental sanitation since both disciplines seek to protect public health. Environmental health however, goes into details on how diseases are transmitted and how they can be controlled or eliminated. This includes other environmental diseases that are also not sanitation based.

The youth of today must understand how diseases are spread and ensure that their communities are protected from diseases. They can also educate the public. During the long vacations, they can volunteer with institutions that manage waste and protect the environment. They can also learn and get involved in their public education programs. They must also engage in community projects that control and break disease cycles, such as eliminating Guinea Worm through education, and the provision of boreholes for communities that rely on surface waters for domestic purposes.

Because the future belongs to the youth, they should begin to look at technologies that ensure zero waste production, and be able to come out with their own products because that is the way to go now.”

  • Do you have any advice for young women out there who look up to you regarding the work and research you have done in Environmental Science?

“In my research, my focus was to provide knowledge on how nature treats waste and understand the mysteries surrounding the transmission routes of water and sanitation related diseases. In all the research I have conducted, my aim was to make life better for people.  I practiced what I discovered, and made them known through workshops and community development projects. I believe that to treat waste, we must understand how nature treats waste and amplify this using scientific and engineering principles in the design and installation of waste treatment facilities.

My guiding principles in life have been the fact that I gave my life to Christ when I was in primary class three. The Christian principles deeply enshrined in me became my way of life and my character for that matter. I must say that as a young girl, my grandmother whom I lived with told me that ‘hard work does not kill’, so I worked hard at anything that was given to me.

I always plan for the future and look beyond present circumstances. I planned that on the education ladder, the sky should be the limit. I also planned to be properly married before I gave birth, and planned to build a house. I even had sketches of the building when I was in class five. 

‘Aim high’ is what I will say to the young women out there. Nothing should deter them from achieving their goals. Even if someone becomes pregnant and sees that her vision is blurred, she should not abort the child. She should wait and give birth to the child and continue with her education. My mother wanted to abort me because she was a student, but thank God the abortion was not successful.

I wish all young ladies who are pursuing various careers in Environmental Health and Engineering well. The world needs us. I also pray that my testimony will challenge them to be the best they can and make an impact in the world. Thank you for providing this platform to share this information.”