Safe water & sanitation for cholera hot spots

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21/03/2013 – Water is life but water can also take lives: every 20 seconds, contaminated water kills one child somewhere on the globe. Worldwide, almost a billion people still have no access to safe water, and this number is expected to nearly double by 2025. The European Commission’s humanitarian aid department (ECHO) promotes access to clean water and quality sanitation. Edwin is working for the UNICEF in Liberia and tells us about the projects UNICEF is implementing there with European funds.

I’ve been in charge of UNICEF’s urban WASH programme – which stands for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene – for about a year. Before the war, I used to work for the Liberia Water & Sewer Corporation. Back then in the eighties, 90% of Monrovia was covered by pipe borne water. Only half as many people lived in Liberia’s capital then, but every faucet of the city provided them with safe water around the clock. The war changed all that. It lasted for 14 long years and brought severe damage to the country’s infrastructure including the water treatment plant 20 km away and the hydro-electric dam. Ever since, it’s been a struggle to bring water back to Monrovia’s population which has more than doubled in the meantime. Making sure that people have access to safe water is by no means a luxury. Cholera is endemic in Monrovia and it’s nothing less than a miracle that major outbreaks haven’t yet occurred. The overall sanitary situation is poor and greater Monrovia’s sewer system is still down.

This is why in 2010 with the support of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department (ECHO), UNICEF started the Urban WASH programme. In 24 ‘cholera hot spots’ of the city, most of them slums with the highest number of suspected cholera cases, we looked to improve the water, sanitation and hygiene conditions. We did this in collaboration with local partners and the communities themselves. In 2012, we completed the second phase of urban WASH project in 32 communities.

It is extremely important for the community to be engaged and appoint a dynamic WASH community chairman. It is one thing to bring facilities like water points, public latrines and showers to the people, it is another thing to get them to use these facilities correctly or use them full stop. Indeed, in some places like the very appropriately named ‘Struggle community’ many people continue to use the overhanging latrine just opposite the shiny new latrine block we constructed. This proves that it is as much about changing behaviours and hygiene education as it is about putting in the infrastructure. People are not sufficiently aware that by defecating in the swamp water that surrounds the shack they built and provides the fish they eat, they are contaminating the water and creating serious health risks.

As other more developmental donors take over, we will build on the projects that we completed thanks to ECHO and step up efforts to strengthen community management and hygiene education. It is a challenge to help communities organize themselves and take ownership. Some communities are very tight and run their affairs well. In others, there is little transparency and the community is in constant flux. Now is a good time for us to take stock of what has been achieved while observing what we can do better.

Hygiene education already works very well in the schools. In each of the 32 communities of the second phase of the urban WASH project we identified schools that could benefit from better sanitation facilities. We provided these on condition that they organized a School Health Club. Children from different age groups form a club that meets every week to discuss best ways to promote hygiene among the other pupils. They focus a lot on hand washing but also on personal and food hygiene. The children also get creative with drama and stage small plays for the entire school. This has a ripple effect beyond the school because when the children get home they also educate their parents. We still have some way to go, but we’re getting there.

By Edwin Rogers, WASH Officer & Urban WASH Focal Point, UNICEF Liberia