The many benefits of improved water, sanitation and hygiene

By Steven Dunham, Portfolio Manager, Africa team

Lack of access to clean water and sanitation can have terrible consequences for children and families living in Zambia. Steven Dunham, World Vision’s Portfolio Manager, talks to us about the WASH program, which focuses on water, sanitation and hygiene to help combat diseases and contribute to all-round better health and quality of life.

How do you know if a community needs a WASH program?
Normally we undertake assessments – we implement surveys in a community to find out the location and quality of their water sources, what their hand-washing practices look like, and what kind of toilets they use. We collect health information from clinics to see what the major health issues are, and many of them are WASH-related. Children under five years will often experience recurrent episodes of diarrhoea, so it’s a significant health issue. So we’re able to collect information from lots of different sources to paint a picture of a community’s WASH profile and whether or not they could use some support, and what those supports might involve.

The situation in Zambia
It’s typically very sparsely populated in rural Zambia with open bush, forest or farmland separating small settlements. If they don’t have a borehole, people will usually rely on streams and hand dug wells for a water supply. And if they do construct toilets, they’ll be very basic and they won’t isolate faecal matter from human contact. So flies can get in there and come out and they come into contact with food and a whole range of things. Culturally most people wash their hands before they eat. But sometimes they don’t wash their hands with soap. So just rinsing in a bowl, and they pass the bowl around – everyone rinses in the same bowl.

In developing countries, nearly 80 percent of childhood disease is related to unsafe drinking water, inadequate hygiene and poor sanitation. A lot of under-five [years old] mortality is WASH-related in those contexts because the health system is so weak. Even if problems are identified in children, it can be hard to access timely and adequate treatment.

Impacts of WASH – how it has helped, and how children are getting involved
World Vision uses a number of different approaches to address sanitation, water supply and hygiene – one thing we are increasingly using is something called Community-Led Total Sanitation to motivate people to construct and use toilets that isolate faecal matter from human contact.

School hygiene programs are also effective and often use "peer-to-peer" approaches. We work with teachers to train a cohort of kids in school in an age-appropriate way about hand washing. So they become advocates for hand washing and WASH in general, both at school and in the community. Kids will listen to other kids, and these kids are also trained to go home, and communicate the same messages to their parents – "hey, it’s a good idea if we build a little tippy tap right next to the toilet so we can wash our hands because guess what I learned at school…" 

Many benefits of WASH
People, all the time, no matter what country you go to, when you collect monitoring samples, when you do an evaluation, people talk about similar kinds of change. Women talk about time saving and increased convenience because of closer water supplies. Greater security if they have a toilet at home – because they don’t have to go out in the middle of the night and use the bush somewhere. But if there is a toilet at home – much easier. Reduced health costs. Fewer opportunity costs associated because of improved WASH – that’s extra time they have to dedicate to other more productive activities at home. They can earn money, and do other things. People also report increased pride and comfort because of improved WASH.

World Vision takes time to understand the specific water, sanitation and hygiene challenges each community faces, and we consult closely with community so that we’re able to ensure our projects are more effective and sustainable. We couldn’t do it without your support – so thank you for partnering with us to improve the global water, sanitation and hygiene situation.

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