Harmattan Rain

Weather down here in the tropics is split into two general seasons, rainy and dry, but there are some intricacies.  For instance, Ghana is currently in its dry season, and therein we have what is referred to as the Harmattan.

The harmattan, most simply put in context, is a wind that blows huge amounts of sand from the Sahara Desert all the way down into the southern part of Ghana.  The northern part of the country is not that far from the ever-expanding Sahara.  In fact, according to some sources a significant part of Ghana, i.e. the North, is under imminent threat of desertification.

At times when the harmattan is really making its presence felt, I can personally perceive how Ghana could become a desert if it lasted long enough without any rain.  There are certain areas up here in the mountains (in the south) where you may have a house in a vulnerable position, i.e. at a higher altitude than others, and during the peak of the harmattan its roof could look like its covered with over an inch of dust.  And the reason I'm bringing all of this up is not the talk about the harmattan per se but rather water harvesting.

I remember reading how in some parts of the U.S. water harvesting is illegal, and some dude in one of those western states - I believe Utah - even got into some serious legal trouble as a result.  But for the most part, water harvesting does appear to be legal stateside yet based on my experience not being widely practiced at all.  It isn't necessary since houses out there inevitably have 24/7 water flow, unless maybe the residents haven't paid their (relatively insignificant) water bill or live in a very remote location.  But generally speaking, access to flowing, piped water is ubiquitous.

That is not the case in Ghana.  Out here, the onus is on the owner of the house whether to add piped water or not.  In other words, if you're in an urban area especially, there would likely be a main waterline running somewhere in the vicinity, hopefully near to where you decide to build.  But then it's up to you, the owner, to pay for the pipes and labor to run water from that line into your home.  And doing so, despite being a government job, can be expensive.

I wouldn't be surprised if legislatively, it is mandatory for homes in Ghana to have piped water.  But in any event, it ain't really like that.  For instance, many people out here live in houses before they're fully completed.  The construction is done piecemeal and sometimes can takes years to finish.  But maybe the owner doesn't have enough money to live elsewhere in the meantime, or maybe s/he will put someone in the residence for other reasons, such as security, labor or even as a renter.

Installing internal piping is usually done during the earlier stages of building a house, but an owner may wait until way later down the line, even after construction is complete, to get those pipes connected to a government line.  Generally speaking, no one is going to say anything if a house doesn't have piped water, as the inconvenience is more on the residents than anyone else.  So a lot of people out here are without flowing water and therefore have to harvest, and/or buy it from a nearby source that does have pipage/storage.

And even for those who may be connected to a government line, the water doesn't always flow.  That's one of the reasons why water tanks are so widespread in Ghana.  Smart homeowners also tend to drill a well or borehole, as they're called in this part of the world, which seems to be the best method of natural water harvesting.  In fact, I would recommend to any expatriate to never reside in a house in Ghana that doesn't have a well unless it has a really big (or respectively personal) water tank, because piped water flow is not something to take for granted.

So many, if not most households in Ghana that have piped water also engage in some form of water harvesting, even if that may be storing piped water.  And harvesting rainwater, even when you may not need to, is sorta like engaging in water security, if you will.

At my current residence, the water didn't flow for almost the entire first week of January.   In the case of such emergencies, I have a couple of really big plastic garbage pails in my room in which I save agua.  But the amount I store doesn't tend to last very long.  I grew up in an environment where water is used liberally, and yes, I have noticed that I use more water than most Ghanaians.  For instance, if I'm forced to bathe out of a bucket, I can't comfortably do so with just one, as they can.

So when the water isn't flowing and the opportunity arises, I will harvest rain and use it primarily for toilet flushing, to wash towels and things like that.  It beats having to walk to the other side of the compound to the well, fetching and then having to carry it back to my room.  Water is one of the heavier common substances on Earth.  You wouldn't know by lifting a glass of it to drink, but when you're carrying it in buckets and jerrycans, you feel it.

Those karate movies where you see disciples carrying large jugs of water with their arms fully extended, that's fictional.  You'd have to be built like the Rock in order to pull off a stunt like that.  So if you have the option to harvest rather than carry, then by all means harvest - so long as circumstances rightfully allow.

The way rainwater is commonly harvested, as shown in the video above, is by placing a container in a spot where it can receive runoff from the roof, where the water is coming down in a stream as opposed to drops or trickles.  As you can see, with a ribbed metal panel serving as a small roof directly outside of my room, water is actually streaming down from all of its rows.  But it's only on the corners where it's coming down really hard, thus making them the ideal spots to harvest.

So first of all, it has to actually be raining hard enough for there to be a stream.  It really sucks for instance when you're living in an area where you're depending on and looking forward to rainwater, and one odd day it does rains but not hard enough to collect any.

The same type of inconvenience applies to when it doesn't rain long enough to wash all of the dirt off the roof, which will inevitably be there unless there was an adequate rainfall a short time prior (or unless you wash the roof yourself).  Such was not the case when I filmed that video.  And that's one of the reasons I named this post "Harmattan Rain", because first of all, with this being the dry season, it hadn't rained like that in a couple of weeks.  Second, with this being the Harmattan, there was mad dust on the roof.  You may not pick that up from the video, but you will upon noticing this picture...

... which is of a bucket's worth of water I harvested about 20 minutes into that rain.  Notice how brown it is.  And again, this is after it had already been raining for almost half an hour.  By contrast, you don't have these kinds of problems with wells, since the water comes through the rocks and is therefore already filtered. 

If you're in a really desperate situation you'd have to find a way to use that brown water anyway, i.e. collect it, let it sit for about a day so that all of the dirt settles to the bottom and then utilize the clean water at the top.  That's why if you live in a house with a large container that collects rain automatically, hopefully you'll have the opportunity to scrub the bottom of the tank regularly.

Another thing about these metal roofs is that, in the above video for instance, it wasn't even raining that hard outside.  But when you're under one, due to the sound of the water hitting the metal and the way it violently streams off, you would think that it's falling a lot harder than it actually is.

About 25 minutes into that rain, when the downpour had lessened a bit but was still streaming off the roof hard, I stepped out from under the it to film another clip.  But the rain was so light that the camera couldn't pick it up as it fell, though you wouldn't know that by looking at the way it was streaming off the roof.

Before that I did shoot a second video from under the roof, about 20 minutes into the rain and I focused more on how the downpour, from the roof especially, was impacting the ground.  Luckily, there's a small slope in the backyard whereas the water flowing through the house runs off instead of settling.  I don't know where it's ultimately runs to, but I would have to presume a nearby stream, river or gutter.

During the rainy season, any major indentation you see in the ground is likely to become a puddle or, if it's really long, a stream or even river.  I lived in a house like that once, in front of a small stream that would be bone dry during this current time of year.  But during the rainy season, it would flow with water - small fish, ducks and everything.  And it's not even in a hardcore-rural area.

The fact that long, narrow indentations in the ground which are dry during one time of the year turn into streams when it starts raining regularly may sound like a "duh" type of observation.  But I grew up on the east coast of the US, which is an urban megaregion.  And being raised in such an environment, you'd be surprised how much you may not practically know about nature.


Any rain that falls during the harmattan can be considered a blessing.  This is especially true if it's a hard rain, like the one that fell a couple of days ago, even if not enduring long enough to rightfully harvest water from the roof.

I just disassembled and cleaned this fan a couple of weeks ago,
but due to the harmattan it looks dustier than ever.

Going too long without rainfall can start to feel scary at times, when you're living in the type of environment where you can notice changes to the ground, plants, etc. when they start to dry.  Also rain is the best way to counteract all of the dust that accumulates on outside surfaces, especially during seasons like the harmattan, as it's already annoying enough having to contend with the sand that finds its way into the inside of the house.