Community-led sanitation brings great promise for Eritrea

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MBEREMI, Eritrea, 31 December 2009 - Encouraging communities to work to improve their health and hygiene means empowering people with the right messages and the means to improve their sanitation systems.

In Eritrea, the remote Emberemi village is located in the midst of a powdery pulp of sand. On a typical homestead there are a few houses, a little kraal with cows tethered to wooden posts, and on the corner is a toilet, also constructed of local shrubs.

Harsh living conditions don't trouble the villagers, but were noticeable to a visiting team from UNICEF and the Ministry of Health, who arrived to monitor the community-led total sanitation strategy (CLTS).

A project with promise

CLTS is a revolutionary low-cost approach to rural sanitation where communities are facilitated to assess their own sanitation situation, analyze and take action to stop open defecation and build their own latrines without any subsidy and using locally available materials. In 2010, the Ministry of Health, with the support of UNICEF, plans to enable the 60,000 households countrywide to stop open defecation.

According to the latest estimates, only five per cent of Eritrea's population has access to improved sanitation facilities. The CLTS project bears great promise and could position the country towards achieving the MDG target on sanitation.

Better toilets, better hygiene

The household of villager Amna Abdela Mussa, age 45, was the first to be visited. She paused from her laundry to welcome the team and show them her toilet. "I heard the message from Ministry of Health on the importance of sanitation and I took it upon myself to construct my own toilet," she said.

The toilet also serves as a bathroom and has two off-site pits. On one side is the toilet and on the other side is the seat for bathing and a pit for dirty water. To ensure good hygiene, a small jerry can is positioned at the door. It is tied to a wooden post, with a rope extending from its mouth to a small peg on the ground. The idea behind this is that one does not have to touch the jerry can, but on stepping on the rope, it automatically tilts the jerry can downwards to enable hand washing. A bar of soap is positioned next to it.

Ms. Mussa is just one of the many Eritreans who have enthusiastically embraced the CLTS. In 2008, one village was declared and certified to be open defecation free (ODF). In 2009, a momentous community mobilization initiative geared towards collective behaviour change to give up open defecation and take up safe hygiene practices took off, with a total of 11,000 households having stopped open defecation and 11 villages now ODF.

Partnerships for shared success

The momentum gained in sanitation has been made possible through funding from the United Kingdom's Department for International Development. According to UNICEF's Chief of Water and Sanitation in Eritrea David Proudfoot, this partnership is key and progress depends very much on sustained funding for the project.

"If we are to sustain results and build on the momentum, this funding must continue, it will position Eritrea on the path to achieving the Millennium Development Goal on sanitation," Mr. Proudfoot said.

It is estimated that approximately 448,000 Eritrean households in rural areas need to build and use their own toilet in order to meet the MDG target by 2015. One of the pioneers of the CLTS, Dr. Kamal Kar believes that this target is very much achievable.

"Eritrea has great potential to serve as an example to the world given the commitment of the government," Dr. Kar said.