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Creating a 'sanitation revolution' in South Africa

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, 18 December 2009 - South Africa held its second 'Africa Water Week' in November to boost the continent's response to safe water and access to sanitation. Organised by the African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW) with support from UN agencies and partners, Africa Water Week is a direct response to the 'Sharm El Sheikh' Commitments on water and sanitation that were made by the African Union Heads of state and Government in 2008.

"We have many countries where the vast majority of the population is still practicing open defecation," said UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Clarissa Brocklehurst. "In Sub Saharan Africa, in particular, there is a crisis in sanitation and, of course, we see the impact of that - we see the poor health of the communities, we see children dying of diarrhoeal diseases so this is something that requires urgent attention."

Across Africa, as many as 355 million people live without access to safe drinking water. The situation of sanitation is even more worrying. An estimated 611 million people do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities.

'Leadership in Sanitation'

At the event, Chief Macha, a Zambian traditional leader from the Tonga community in Southern Zambia, was awarded the 'Leadership in Sanitation' prize. The AMCOW Awards are dedicated to recognizing outstanding efforts to affect large-scale, sustainable behaviour changes and tangible impacts in sanitation and hygiene.

In his rural chiefdom, Chief Macha has been leading a quiet revolution, transforming his community in just two years. Now declared 'open defecation free', access to sanitation in his community has doubled from 50 per cent to 100 per cent.

"In my chiefdom, my work is to try to get everyone to have a good house and a toilet," said Chief Macha, who was elected in 1990. "You find that in many African countries including my own country, Zambia, people build their own house but without a toilet which is most dangerous. So this is a move that I am trying to change and get everyone to understand that a house should come with a toilet.

'One Family, One Toilet'

Chief Macha rallied around the slogan 'One Family, One Toilet', which has been adopted by the Government of Zambia's 'Make Zambia Clean and Healthy' campaign. The community-driven campaign is designed to improve access to toilets across the country. It is now being used by UNICEF in many countries and focuses on community dynamics and individual perceptions.

"I think that Chief Macha's award is particularly important here because he represents the local level: local leadership, local sanitation and taking local matters into his own hands by saying that as a local leader wanted his people to have safe sanitation and inspiring them to do it for themselves," said UNICEF's Ms. Brocklehurst. "He talks about empowerment and he talks about working with whole villages so he is a great embodiment of what we believe, which is that progress can be made in sanitation and it can be made in a way that is truly empowering to people and local communities."

It is hoped that Chief Macha's work can inspire other communities across the continent to take sanitation in their own hands, improving the overall health of the population.