Safe & Sanitary

August 27, 2014

Reducing waterborne disease around the world

steve werner_wasrag
Steve Werner

Clean water is crucial to health, and around the world, thousands of people die each day due to waterborne illnesses. The Water & Sanitation Rotarian Action Group (WASRAG) is an organization that implements WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) programs around the world in an effort to reduce death and disease. Water Quality Products Managing Editor Kate Cline recently spoke with Steve Werner of WASRAG to find out more about educating people on safe water and sanitation.

Kate Cline: What are some roadblocks in developing countries to achieving access to clean water and sanitation?  

Steve Werner: Most roadblocks to effective WASH programs result from human problems such as:

  • No formal training in the maintenance and repair of water and sanitation systems; 
  • Inadequate hygiene education; 
  • Poor local governance from a local water committee or water board. As a result, funds aren’t collected to pay for spare parts, repairs and maintenance;
  • No supply chain for spare parts; and
  • Little or no community involvement at the start of the project. The community must be involved from the beginning and take ownership of their project.

One of the biggest challenges occurs when there is a single-minded focus on technology. The choice of the right technology is critical, but it must be accompanied by a plan for long-term training and maintenance.

Another hurdle is society’s negative view of sanitation. In many cultures, discussion of sanitation and menstrual hygiene is frowned upon. This is changing, but behavioral change is still one of WASRAG’s biggest challenges.

Cline: What techniques has WASRAG found successful in helping achieve access to clean water? 

Werner: WASRAG encourages a “demand” approach rather than a “supply” approach. A thorough needs assessment is essential before starting a project. Just a few of the key factors are determining the available water sources; ensuring an adequate supply of water; finding optimal ways of filtering, purifying and storing water at each home; and ensuring efficient water usage for all purposes, including sanitation, bathing, washing clothes, washing dishes, cooking, drinking and irrigation. 

In some situations there is surface water that can be treated. In other cases, deep bore holes must be drilled. In more arid areas, rainwater harvesting and cisterns are needed. Each WASH project has its own unique characteristics. WASRAG’s approach includes careful study of all factors before a sustainable solution can be created that will meet the needs of the community.  

Cline: What techniques has WASRAG found successful in helping achieve proper sanitation?

Werner: The simplest and most effective intervention is hand washing. Studies have shown that if people washed their hands after using the toilet, there would be a 40% reduction in water-related illnesses. Also critical is ensuring that every home has a usable latrine. It should be built properly to ensure there is no leakage of waste; it should be screened to keep flies and other disease carriers from spreading bacteria; and it should have clean, raised floors so people don’t transmit disease from their shoes. 

Finally, depending on circumstances (rural versus urban, soil conditions, proximity of latrine to the home, etc.) communities can be encouraged to compost waste and use technology such as biodigesters. The resulting crop fertilizer can be a tremendous asset to the community, but training in proper handling is essential to ensure that disease isn’t spread accidentally. Communities must see recycling as an opportunity — not a problem.

Cline: How do WASH needs differ across the world?

Werner: There are cultural differences from country to country and region to region, but the issues are similar everywhere. Educating women is essential, because children spend so much time with their mothers and grandmothers. Improving WASH conditions and hygiene education at schools also reaches the young people. This can help prevent them from transmitting disease when they return to their villages. Young people can play a key role in educating their families about hygiene practices. 

Mobilizing communities to take charge of their WASH needs and to abide by good governance procedures are key. Good governance is important, because bringing WASH to communities and households requires materials that will eventually break. With good governance comes the realization that each household must contribute to a fund for system maintenance. Each household must understand its responsibility to the community. If one person gets sick from a water-related illness, the whole community is at risk

Steve Werner is a volunteer and WASH consultant for the Water & Sanitation Rotarian Action Group. Werner can be reached at info@wasrag.org.

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