Fighting diseases with clean water and sanitation

By Lorraine Taggart, IFRC

“We used to have to go to this empty field far from the house. At night it was scary but my father always went with me. But now we have a latrine and I feel happy for that,” says 11-year-old Kervens Monazè.

Kervens has been learning about hand-washing and cholera prevention in school. He and his family, who managed to rebuild their home after the earthquake, received support from the Haiti Red Cross Society in latrine construction, cholera prevention and hygiene promotion.

Sanitation needs after a disaster

While access to water is a fundamental need in the aftermath of a disaster - such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – responding to the sanitation requirements is equally important, but it is often treated as a secondary element.

In July 2010, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (IFRC) began its water and sanitation programme in Léogâne, the epicentre of the earthquake.

Camelia Marinescu, Water and Sanitation Project manager, says the intention was to help communities regain some of the infrastructure which was destroyed or severely damaged after the earthquake. “A key component of our strategy was to facilitate greater access to sanitation, encourage better hygiene practices and reduce exposure to communicable diseases,” she says.

Red Cross volunteers have been critical to ensuring proper utilization of sanitation facilities and increasing people’s knowledge of basic hygiene practices, leading to behaviour change.

Battling cholera

Cholera had not been recorded on Hispaniola for decades before the epidemic struck in the fall of 2010, eventually sickening some 650,000 people and killing 8,600. The severity of the outbreak which began in Haiti and then spread to the Dominican Republic, is attributed to the low level of access in Haiti to adequate water, sanitation and health care; the lowest levels of water and sanitation of any country in the Americas.

In October 2010, with the onset of the cholera epidemic, the IFRC intensified its water and sanitation activities, building 2,900 new latrines, 114 new or rehabilitated water points and 29 new boreholes.

Access to clean water and sanitation means a lot: it means less time spent on getting water, taking care of sick children and less money spent on medicines for diseases that are avoidable, such as cholera and diarrhoea.

“I remember that we had to walk for miles to get clean water,” says Rodrigue Saintil, a fisherman who has lived all his life in the small fishing community of Bossan. Married and father of a six year old daughter, Rodrigue supports his family through fishing. His wife supports his work by selling the fish that he catches in the marketplace.

“When cholera broke out it was frightening because it was a disease that we had never heard of or seen before,” said Saintil. “Having clean water available makes us feel safer. We feel as if our health is protected.”

Putting communities at the centre

In the town of Cabaret, north of Port-au-Prince, the focus has been on strengthening water and sanitation activities. “Our goal is to help people take responsibility for their own health and the prevention of certain diseases. Things such as hand washing and disposing of garbage in a designated area can go a long way in preventing diseases,” says Adee Lindor, IFRC Community Mobilization Officer.

Johanne Mesidor is one of the 30 people selected to participate in the ten-week participatory Hygiene and Sanitation Training (PHAST), which is included in IFRC relocation and resettlement efforts, also known as the Integrated Neighbourhood Approach (INA) programme.

“During PHAST we are taught what we can do to prevent certain diseases. For example, making sure that we don’t leave stagnant water around or near our homes can prevent malaria. I intend to use the training that I received to train others in the community,” says Mesidor.

The rainy season will begin in May and end in November and may cause a spike in cholera cases recorded, but the efforts to ensure cholera is completely eradicated will continue.

The IFRC is helping to reduce the risk of waterborne diseases by working towards improving access to sanitation for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who have inadequate resources. To have even a chance of achieving this, however, we must address the imbalance between water and sanitation. Both are a crucial part of promoting community health, resilience and human dignity, as well as being basic human rights.

Find out more at www.ifrc.org/watsan