The Saha Model: Getting the Cleanest Water to the Hardest to Reach Places

There are a lot of different ways to produce clean, safe water.  At Saha, we use a simple, low-cost, low-tech solution that fits the context of our communities.  Water is conveyed from surface water sources by hand into drums, where it is treated with aluminum sulfate and then disinfected with chlorine.  The water is sold to families for about 3 cents per 20 liters, which they keep free from recontamination in the home using safe storage containers.

While we dream of a (hopefully very near!) future when every household in northern Ghana has water piped into their dwelling, let’s get into the basics of why Saha works the way we do.  Our mission at Saha is to get the cleanest water to the hardest to reach places in northern Ghana – here’s what we mean by that:

Saha communities are super small – most have fewer than 1,000 residents.  Many have fewer than 200!  Most safe water enterprises use a combination of subsidy, funding, and user fees to keep the systems maintained over time. The large mechanized systems that can work well in denser areas would need to be heavily subsidized in Saha communities since the user base is so small.  Instead, Saha designed a process where water is treated by hand. Saha water treatment centers, with their simple design, are able to be maintained based on the user fees.

Saha communities are really rural – connecting to larger municipal systems would take miles and miles of pipe!  While it’s been exciting to see electrification reach even some of our most remote communities in recent years, many places in which we work still have roads only passable by motorbike.  Approximately 40% of our communities get totally cut off from road access for at least a portion of the rainy season, so the fact that our systems can be repaired and maintained using only expertise and parts found within the community is really important.

Groundwater is complicated here!  Beyond the abandoned or broken borehole, we’ve seen boreholes that work for one year and then dry up, boreholes that have water only seasonally, boreholes that pump visibly dirty water, and boreholes that pump salty water.  While we know groundwater can be an excellent solution for many regions, it has proved very challenging where we work.  Recently, we visited a Saha community with a new borehole – everyone was excited, and so were we!  We always want people to have easier access to water. But the next week when we visited, and asked how the borehole was working, everyone had gone back to the Saha center because the water was so hard that it couldn’t even lather soap to do laundry, much less drink.

Our system might be simple, but it works. Currently, Saha water treatment centers, run by entrepreneurial women, are providing access to clean water in 260 communities throughout northern Ghana.