Water Crisis: Emergency on planet earth

The problems may seem huge, but the solutions are simple, report Kelly Jones and Michelle Bell
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The Independent Online
Women and water

For millions of women and girls, fetching and carrying water is part of their daily routine. Men rarely take part - it is seen exclusively as women's work.

The provision of safe, accessible water not only prevents needless drudgery but also improves women's health and that of their families. Their time is freed up for agricultural or income generating work, looking after their children or simply enjoying some needed rest.

For WaterAid, women are key participants in successful projects. They place a high priority on improved water and work very hard to design and build projects. Women are often responsible for the maintenance of handpumps and taps as well as collecting and banking funds collected by the community to pay for the scheme's upkeep. It is often women who are trusted with the position of treasurer or who become tapstand attendants.

This all has a positive impact on women's position in the community. By having an important and public role such as caretaker of a scheme, a woman's status is enhanced. Ultimately, she can gain in skills and confidence, becoming stronger and respected for her new role in society.

In the village of Kullampatti in Tamil Nadu, India the handpump is maintained by the local women's society [sangam]. Naghata has been trained in routine maintenance and provided with a spanner and a tin of grease. Her life has changed dramatically since she became responsible for the pump: "I have visited places I have never gone to before. I went to the bank to register the sangam and then we approached the Panchayat Union office to press for electricity in the village. I never dreamt I could stand up and talk to officials like that. My husband was very surprised, and didn't like it at first. But I told him, If we have the right to our own good drinking water, why shouldn't we have electricity too?"

Community participation

WaterAid is confident that projects will succeed if communities are actively involved in the design and long-term management. In the village of Chololo, Tanzania, a community-led project now brings safe water to the 2,000 residents. The women and children once walked three kilometres every day to fetch water which was unsafe. Realising the threat that this posed to health, the residents formed a water committee and approached WaterAid with a plan for a project. Everyone contributed, taking part in the planning of the scheme, digging trenches and collecting aggregate to build a water tank. Local people are now trained by WaterAid to manage and maintain their new water supply.

In Ethiopia an even grander scheme is underway. The WaterAid-supported Hitosa project aims to supply safe water to 71,000 people. This gravity- fed water supply will connect 31 communities to a main pipeline running from a spring. Local villagers (see photograph) have volunteered their time to dig hundreds of metres of trenches and lay pipes. In the dry season, the nearest potable water is 10-20 kilometres away and fetching this can involve an overnight journey. There is a water pond outside the nearby town of Iteya but Negash Taku, a guard at the pond said: "Last year the dry season was long and children drank this water without it being boiled. Thirty-eight people died, I am sure because of the water. When this project is successful, such problems will no longer exist."

Working in Partnership

In every country where it funds projects, WaterAid works with partners. These are local organisations which undertake the day to day management and implementation of projects. The partner organisations consist of people with a wealth of essential skills and knowledge, from speaking local dialects to understanding how governments function.

A key feature of WaterAid's work in Ghana is the support given to local non-governmental organisations [NGOs] who implement community-based water, sanitation and hygiene education projects. NGOs like the Akuapem Community Development Programme have trained local men and women in the skills required to maintain and repair handpumps.

Not all partners are NGOs. In Tanzania a highly successful relationship known as WAMMA has been developed with government health, water and community mobilisation departments at regional and district level. This partnership builds up the skills and confidence of the government's own district fieldworkers, so that they can work successfully with communities to help them develop their own solutions to water problems.

WaterAid's role in any project can only be relatively short-term. It is the partners and the communities working together which operate and maintain water supplies and sanitation projects in the long-term. It is therefore, important that partners are helped to develop their own organisational capacity. This may not appear directly targeted at community water needs, but it is an important investment aimed at strengthening a country's water and sanitation sector. It is vital that partners can continue to support work when WaterAid has moved on.

Using Technologies

In order for projects to last all the machinery and hardware needs to be simple and appropriate to local conditions. Wells and pipes rather than hi-tech pumping stations - latrines rather than sewage works. This means that when maintenance is required or when parts need replacing the communities are able to do this themselves. All WaterAid's work promotes the appropriate use of technologies.

Where water is collected from distant hillside springs, a project using pipes is constructed to carry safe water to the heart of a village. In the hilly areas of Ethiopia, Nepal and Tanzania such gravity-fed schemes are ideal. The water is carried by gravity - doing away with all moving parts.

Where water is underground, wells are the answer. In Ghana, where water is only 10-15 metres below the surface these are dug by hand. They are lined with concrete rings and capped with a handpump.

But where the water is deeper underground a diesel engine and pump is used to suck the water from the earth. As this requires more moving parts, a local person is trained to service and maintain it. Though more expensive to buy and run than other technologies, this is the most appropriate solution.

Sanitation projects, too, are designed to be easy to build and maintain. Usually simple pit latrines with a concrete slab, they are far removed from our porcelain WCs but they are effective. In a WaterAid-funded project in Rukingiri, Uganda, a women's co-operative make 20 concrete slabs a day using moulds provided by WaterAid. They sell them to neighbouring villagers who can dig a pit, cap it with the slab and construct a surround for privacy.

New approaches are always being developed, from the sanitation techniques being pioneered by the people of Orangi in Pakistan [see previous page] to new water surveying equipment currently being trialled in Zambia.

Integrated Approach

Across the world two billion people - one third of humanity - do not have access to even the most basic sanitation. Elmas Kassa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia faces a problem shared by many: "Our house doesn't have a bathroom. I wash myself in the kitchen once a week, on Sunday. When I need the toilet I have to go to the river in the gully behind my house. We are only supposed to go after dark when people can't see us. In the daytime I use a tin inside the house."

Safe water, therefore, is just one part of the solution to improving quality of life. Without effective sanitation and hygiene education, few lasting benefits can realistically be achieved. In all WaterAid-funded projects an integrated approach combining water, sanitation and hygiene is adopted to enable people to gain a real chance of a healthier future.

Poor sanitation can increase the spread of life threatening diseases. One of the most effective ways of tackling this problem is by constructing simple latrines. In the village of Patale Khet in Nepal, the local partner NGO Newah dug a demonstration pit latrine to prove to villages that working sanitation could be built using cheap, easily available materials. Health volunteer, Putali Devi Tripathi reminded her neighbours of the importance to health of improved sanitation. "Once a day I visit a different household and tell the people to wash their hands, to be clean and not to stool in the fields. In two months, I have visited all 60 households."

Now over 60 latrines have been completed by the villagers, dramatically improving the health of the community.

But without hygiene education, the opportunity for improved health may be wasted. In the Chittagong division of Bangladesh, health motivators from the Village Education Resource Centre [VERC] use video as a communication tool. They can often be seen transporting TV monitors and video players by rickshaw, taking health messages directly into homes and community centres.

Kajarinai Sutradhar, a mother of four, told VERC that combining the health messages she had learnt with safe water had ensured her children now suffered less frequently from diarrhoea.

The Future

WaterAid's vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water and effective sanitation. To date this is a reality for almost four and a half million people, thanks to WaterAid's support and guidance. New projects are beginning in Mozambique, Zambia, Eritrea and Nigeria - countries where people are desperate to improve things for themselves.

For 10-year old Tirhas Hayos from Eritrea safe water will make a huge difference to the quality of her young life. Every day she fills a 20 litre jerry can with water collected from a small pond. In the dry season, when this pond is empty she is forced to walk for six hours to fetch water she knows is not safe to drink. With WaterAid's help she will no longer have to carry out this exhausting task. The danger to her health from life threatening diseases will be greatly reduced. Her village will be cleaner and safer as a result of sanitation schemes and hygiene education she will have learnt. Hers will be a better future.