Featuring commentary from our founder, Lou Haveman
Imagine carrying 5 buckets of water each day to and from your house: to bathe, to cook, and to drink—and then worrying about which bacterial infection you might receive.
In the United States, this is something that is largely avoided. However, other countries around the world, such as Sierra Leone, struggle with access to clean water on a daily basis.
In Sierra Leone, the general population has extremely low access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), at just 16% of the population. Less than 1% of the population has piped water in their home. Low access to WASH contributes to health concerns such as diarrhea, acute respiratory illnesses, undernutrition and worm infestations. All of these can lead to death and many other health issues. (UNICEF).
Connect for Water founder Lou Haveman reflected on his time living in Sierra Leone. Haveman lived in Sierra Leone through part of the 1980s as well as in several other regions of Africa.
“In that day, we didn’t think of clean water. I’ve regretted living (in Sierra Leone) at that point and time because here’s the thing: almost everybody had a chronic case of bacterial infection,” reflected Haveman.
While in Sierra Leone, Haveman and his team focused mostly on food insecurity, community development and literacy. All which are important issues—but dodge the root of many health concerns in the region: lack of clean water. However, water was not a major concern at the time because of the abundance of rainfall in the region.
“If you know anything about the geography of Sierra Leone you know it’s high forests, lots of rainfall, 60 to 80 inches a year,” said Haveman. “So, lots of streams, lakes and a lot of rivers. The source of water for almost everyone was open wells, rivers and streams.”
“If we had known what we know now, we could have gone in and just provided clean filtration or clean water and called it good, but we didn’t know that and we didn’t focus on water,” Haveman added.
Present Day Sierra Leone
‘What we know now’ is that much of the water in Sierra Leone is contaminated. Although rainfall and water is plentiful, the quality of that water is subpar. Therefore, access to clean sanitation is nearly impossible for the average household in Sierra Leone, bringing about waterborne disease. According to UNICEF and Haveman, much of the problem comes from poor infrastructure, which leads to human and animal defecation leaking into drinking water.
Sierra Leone is a beautiful region, spotted with beaches, flourishing trees—it should have a stable, tourist-centered economy to support secure infrastructure—it does not.
“Sierra Leone experienced a civil war for a number of years and a lot of the infrastructure that did exist was destroyed, including some water systems. Now there’s a higher population and more demand for water,” stated Haveman.
This is the raw truth. Before the civil war, people lived in the countryside of Sierra Leone and access to clean water was plentiful. It bubbled out of springs and rushed down mountainsides. As the war began, people started to move to the capital, Freetown, and the population grew, but infrastructure did not improve (NPR). These people are now crammed into small brown villas with metal roofs, fighting off disease.
As of now, many neighborhoods have implemented water kiosks. For a small fee, villagers can fill up their cans with water trickling from taps. In some areas of Sierra Leone, water kiosks are run by private companies with their own buildings. Many sources of water, though, are just pipes that run above ground or water collected from rivers and rainfall.
To our Network
Here at Connect for Water, we aim to give hope to areas like Sierra Leone. Though it may be hard to envision this reality, it’s important to us that you’ve taken the time to read about it, so, thank you! If you want to hear more stories like this, join our network here. If you want to help us raise funds for those in Sierra Leone, go to our sponsorship page here.
In our ever changing and evolving world, improvements in living conditions are essential. Sanitation is our first line of defense against communicable diseases and epidemics of infectious diseases such as influenza, typhoid, cholera, and more.
And while developed nations tend to have outstanding methods of sanitation and good hygiene practices, developing nations still lose millions of lives every year because of poor or non-existent sanitation systems, according to the World Bank (2017).
But knowing generally about the problem doesn’t really help you understand just how bad the situation really is. In order to move toward change, a clear-eyed view of the problem is essential.
Here’s what you really need to know.
The Stark Lack of Basic Sanitation Around The World
Modern sanitation facilities are vital topublic health. And while access to sanitary facilities has increased dramatically in the past twenty years, nearly 2.3 billion people still don’t have toilets or access to upgraded latrines.
Thankfully, the General Assembly of UN declared access to safe drinking water and modern sanitation as a human right in 2010. International efforts to help provide safe and accessible drinking water and sanitation are underway.
But, in spite of the progress, the 2015 target to cut the proportion of the population without access to improved sanitation facilities in half missed by nearly 700 million people.
There are still hundreds of thousands of people dying each year from diseases directly related to their lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation.
The one element that perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty is open defecation.
In places where open defecation is widespread, the number of deaths of children under 5 years old are as high as the levels of malnutrition and poverty.
Access to clean water is one of the keys to defeating the deaths of millions around the globe.
The State of Water Sanitation Worldwide
Many humanitarian organizations are supporting initiatives to improve water sanitation, with theGlobal Water Strategy specifically designed to address the issue.
According to USAID, the objectives are long-term and short-term:
1. Promote sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation services, and
the adoption of key hygiene behaviors
2. Encourage the sound management and protection of freshwater resources
3. Strengthen water sector governance, financing, and institutions
Thanks to USAID’s support, 37.3 million people were granted access to improved water supplies, and 24.1 million people were granted access to modernized sanitation facilities between 2008-2016.
Additionally, in 2016, 3.1 million people were granted sustainable access to cleaner water services, and 3 million people were provided access to upgraded sanitation facilities. USAID has invested more than $441.5 million to improving water and sanitation efforts in 47 countries.
Clean water and improved sanitation are just two steps in improving the overall public health around the world.
The Lack of Good Hygiene Practices
Access to clean water, modern toilets andgood hygiene practices are absolutely necessary for the development and safety of children. If they don’t have these basic needs, millions of children’s lives are at risk.
Tragically, over 800 children under the age of five die every day from preventable diseases; it is their lack of access to proper water, sanitation, and good hygiene that contribute to these deaths.
It is critical that those in developing countries are educated on proper hygiene to help prevent these daily deaths.
The Link Between Poverty and Health
While it is great that we in developing countries have modernized appliances and access to cleaning supplies, people in poverty-stricken areas are not so fortunate.
Poverty and poor health worldwide are inextricablylinked. Poverty is both a cause and an effect of poor health. Millions of the poorest and most vulnerable among us are killed or weakened each year by infectious and tropical diseases.
Economic, social and political structures that perpetuate poverty and discrimination must be changed significantly if poverty and poor health are to be addressed aggressively. Marginalized groups are deprived of the information, access, and money they need to prevent and treat disease.
For example, the cost of getting to a health care facility, the doctors’ fees, and a course of drugs can be economically devastating. In worst case scenarios, an illness may mean that families sell property, take kids out of school to work or the family must start begging.
The burden of care for a sick family member almost inevitably falls on the women. They lose the opportunity to receive an education and this can affect their futures. They lose out on the opportunities for work, more education, and the ability to save for future emergencies. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
In addition, the health of the environment is dictated by human interactions with natural resources.
The Need For Environmental Health
Humans interact with theenvironment every day. Our contact with the environment affect the quality of everyone’s life, the years of healthy life that can be expected, and disparities in overall health.
According to the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health, environmental health is determined by 6 themes that highlight elements of environmental health:
Outdoor air quality
Surface and ground water quality
Toxic substances and hazardous wastes
Homes and communities
Infrastructure and surveillance
Global environmental health
To create a global, healthy environment, scientists must rely on continuing research to help in understanding the effects of exposure to environmental hazards on human health.
Diarrhea is caused by a variety of microorganisms including viruses, bacteria and protozoans. Diarrhea causes a person to lose both water and electrolytes, which leads to dehydration and, in some cases, to death.
Long-term exposure to low concentrations of arsenic in drinking-water causes painful skin keratosis (hardened lesions) and can result in cancers of the skin, lungs, bladder and kidney.
Cholera is an acute bacterial infection of the intestinal tract. It causes severe attacks of diarrhea that can quickly lead to acute dehydration and death.
Fluorosis is a serious bone disease caused by high concentrations of fluoride occurring naturally in groundwater. Fluorosis is endemic in at least 25 countries across the globe.
Guinea worm disease
People contract the disease when drinking water contaminated with Dracunculus larvae. The larvae mature into large adult Guinea worms and leave the body after about a year, causing debilitating ulcers.
A hygienic environment, clean water and adequate sanitation are key factors in preventing opportunistic infections associated with HIV/AIDS, and in the quality of life of people living with the disease.
People become infected with intestinal parasitic worms through contact with soil that has been contaminated with human feces from an infected person, or by eating contaminated food.
Malaria is a serious disease caused by a parasite carried by certain types of mosquitoes. Each year, there are 300 million to 500 million cases of malaria, with about 1 million being children.
Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia) is a disease caused by parasitic worms. They penetrate the skin of people swimming, bathing or washing in contaminated water.
Trachoma is an eye infection spread mainly through poor hygiene caused by lack of adequate water supplies and unsafe environmental sanitation conditions.
Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection caused by ingesting contaminated food or water. About 12 million people are affected by typhoid every year.
These millions of poor quality environmental deaths can be prevented.
reducing the spread of intestinal worms, schistosomiasis and trachoma
reducing the severity and impact of malnutrition
promoting dignity and boosting safety
potential recovery of water, renewable energy and nutrients from fecal waste
World Health Organization research in 2012 found that for every $1.00US invested in sanitation, there was a return of $ 5.50US in lower health care costs, higher productivity, and lower numbers of premature deaths.
Those with access to quality sanitation are more likely to hold down a job, pursue an education, and be less at risk for deadly, water-borne diseases. This is especially true for women and girls whose lives are in need of sustainable development.
Creating Sustainable Development Goals
Research suggests that in sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls in poverty-stricken communities spend 40 billion hours per yearcollecting water. Time lost to gathering water translates to $24 billion in lost global economic benefits every year.
These women and girls not only walk up to 6 kilometers a day to find water, there is no guarantee the water will be clean. In addition, those hours of searching deprive women and girls of the chance at an education or the ability to work a steady job.
To address the issues of vulnerable populations, the United Nations createdsustainable development goals in 2015. Some of these goals specifically hope to improve access to basic needs of the population that lives in poverty:
End poverty everywhere
End hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Build resilient infrastructure
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
The efforts of the global community have been marginally successful across the years, but the population of the Earth is decades away from achieving significant change in water and sanitation concerns.
As billions continue to live in abject poverty and atrocious conditions, the governments and organizations of the world continue to work toward sustainable solutions. Millions are dying every day due to poor sanitation and lack of clean water.
If you want to help resolve this situation, the simplest thing you can do it support the ongoing work of organizations that are on the front line of the sanitation crisis. While you may not be able to pick up and travel to a developing nation, you can play a critical part in the organizations that can do that.