Getting the balance right: access to good water and sanitation can transform communities

By Ombretta Baggio in Zimbabwe

Sissylia Mhaka’s feet know the way to the river very well. Even at 5am she can run down the rocks to the river and climb back up with a 20-litre container filled to the brim on her head. The journey takes almost three hours and sometimes, she does it twice a day.

When her husband lost his job as a security guard in Harare five years ago, Sissylia moved back to her village in Chivi district. Later, her husband left for South Africa in search of work and now sends home $40 US dollars every six months.

Water from the river is dirty and unsafe. However in southern Zimbabwe, a lack of rain over recent months has made even this water precious.

The lack of safe water is a major problem in the rural areas, where one-in-three have no access, but the sanitation challenge is even more striking as a large percentage of the population has no choice but to practice open defecation. Sissylia is one of them.

In wealthier parts of the world, a simple toilet flush can use ten times more than our required daily amount of drinking water. Yet nearly 800 million people in the world have no access to clean water and 2.5 billion have no safe way to dispose of human waste.

Persuading people to use their water for washing hands is far more difficult when it is so scarce.

However basic sanitation and hygiene matter as much as safe water, and can help reduce cases of diarrhoea, the second leading killer of children around the world, by up to 39 per cent.

Where improved sanitation and hygiene, and access to safe water are adequately supported the health of a community improves. Hours previously spent fetching water or taking care of children with preventable illnesses can be used to grow more food, study, or even start a business. When people stop defecating by the river, children no longer have to drink contaminated water and spend less time being sick. Women do not have to go in the dark to defecate or dig a hole to hide their menstrual waste.

Unfortunately, many villages in Zimbabwe are littered with the ghosts of past water projects. Globally, about half of water projects fall into disrepair when project leaders move on.

In Mount Darwin, a district in the North, Barbra Kurado, a beneficiary of a Red Cross water and sanitation project which finished in 2010, explains what made the programme a success in her village.

“We work as a community. We decided on where to have the water point and participated actively in building and maintaining the water pump and toilets,” She says. “Even now that the project is over, we get together as a group and pull money together to construct latrines.”

Here, 85 per cent of water points are still functioning and 96 per cent of latrines are still in use. There has also been a significant improvement in hygiene practices in the district.

“Not only do we need to get the balance right between action on providing improved sanitation and access to safe water, but we also need to deliver water and sanitation programmes that are sustainable in the long haul. This entails a number of important components from community ownership to working closely with the government, and using the most appropriate and sustainable technology,” says Uli Jaspers, Head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Water and Sanitation Unit.

How would Sissylia’s life be different if she never had to go to the river for water again or if she had a toilet next to her house?

She says her dream is to study, and become a teacher and a role model in her community, bringing back knowledge, hope and change to her family and her community.

The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society, in partnership with the IFRC, recently launched a water and sanitation project in Chivi district. If all goes well, Sissylia will soon have safe water and a toilet just outside her door.