Interview with Mark Henderson, head of the WASH, about the importance of safe water

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Maputo, 22 March 2013 - On the occasion of World Water Day, we sat down with Mark Henderson, who recently joined the UNICEF Mozambique team as head of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene section to speak about the importance of safe water and how well we are doing in providing it to children in Mozambique.

Q: How would you define the water and sanitation situation in Mozambique?
MH: More than 50% of children in Mozambique don’t have access to improved water supply, and with improved we mean a supply system, such as pipes or handpumps, that have a good chance of providing safe drinking water, as opposed to rivers or unprotected wells, which risk being contaminated. The situation in rural areas is much worse, where only one in ten families have access to improved sanitation facilities. . Nine out of ten cases of diarrhea, a major killer of children under 5, are related to poor water and sanitation conditions. So the situation for children is far from ideal, to say the least.

Q: What are some of the things that UNICEF does to help solve this problem?
MH: At UNICEF, we focus on improving the situation for children and families with limited access to improved water supply, primarily those living in rural areas or small towns, through partnerships with the Government of Mozambique water authorities, donors and the private sector. Sanitation is a huge priority, as well. We encourage all families to build their own toilets, even a simple latrine, in order to end the practice of open defecation. In the poorest segment of society, 93% practice open defecation while in the richest segment only 3% do. Reaching children in schools is also a priority, in order to improve the learning environment and establish good hygiene practices from an early age. Twenty years ago when we did hygiene education in rural areas, we used to sit down with the village elders under a tree and try to convince them to adopt good practices. That was actually a silly approach that never worked very well. It’s really the children you want to influence, who are themselves the caregivers of the future. In fact, some are already caregivers, heading families and caring for their younger siblings. Focusing on children is certainly a more effective way to make these types of behavioral changes.

Q: Why would a country like Mozambique with all its rivers have a problem with water?
MH: There are occasional droughts, especially in the southern parts of the country, but it’s true that Mozambique is blessed with a lot of fresh water resources, with large rivers draining large river basins. But for the provision of low-cost water supplies, especially in rural areas, groundwater is the preferred option because water from wells or boreholes requires minimal treatment. Mozambique’s ample wter resources have to be properly managed. What we are seeing right now is an increasing demand from agriculture, population growth, mining and industry. One thing Mozambique can be proud of is the strong regional management system it has in place to manage dams and relations to neighboring upstream countries, with early warning systems in case of floods, which we saw in action during this year’s flood emergency.

Q: The flooding that hit the Limpopo river basin in Gaza province this year displaced up to 200,000 people, and left major destruction in its path. How was this handled, and what are some lessons learnt?
MH: As part of the Humanitarian Country Team, we lead the WASH cluster, coordinating and managing information around a joint collaborative response. And in fact, the cluster was actively involved in preparing for the floods even before the red alert was sounded. We were meeting with our partners and making joint visits to at-risk areas and assessing stocks of pre-positioned supplies. Once people were displaced, the initial emergency response was about providing families with buckets, water treatment products, soap, construction material for latrines such as slabs and plastic sheeting. In accommodation camps, we helped provide adequate water for camp residents through water trucking, and supported the construction of latrines. Right now, as the floodwaters have retreated, we focus on return communities, disinfecting wells, fixing pumps, and helping families rebuild their latrines. The cluster approach, which was initiated in 2005, helps us carry out a coordinated response that can be put in place very quickly. In the same vein, our government counterparts in the water sector have also progressed, establishing a semi-autonomous body that manages urban water supply in all major towns and cities. Professionalizing the work in this manner has resulted in better service delivery and the ability to respond with preventive measures. During the floods this year, for example, the spread of disease was effectively averted in the worst hit city of Chokwe, thanks to the quick reaction of authorities. Before the floodwaters hit, they removed pumps from the boreholes and sealed them, and turned off the power supply, to minimize the risk of damage . Once the waters receded, they went in and reinstalled the pumps and got the system up and running. This is a huge improvement over the year 2000 when floods had a far more devastating effect, and the town water system had to be completely rehabilitated. . In all, we have a long way to go in making sure all children and their families in Mozambique have access to safe water and sanitation. Eventually we will get there, but we still have a long way to go.