Back in November, I got to see some of our clean water programs in northern Uganda, a place that is still scarred by decades of brutal civil war with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I never knew how complex the solution to the problem of clean water could be — but I got to learn from some experts and ask a lot of questions.
One of the most informative conversations I had was with John Steifel, World Vision’s Uganda water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) program coordinator. His explanations were so good, I thought I’d share them with you.
Rachael (R): Why is water, sanitation, and hygiene so important?
John (J): WASH is foundational to our development model as an organization. When we work with communities to help them become self-sustaining, water, sanitation, and hygiene are some of the first things we look at and the first programs we implement. These elements need to be in place for education, health, and economic development to work.
R: Why is the sanitation and hygiene stuff so important? Clean water is clean water, right?
J: Water without sanitation and hygiene doesn’t work, because the clean water gets contaminated so easily. When people defecate in the open — as is customary in many areas without proper sanitation facilities — the rain will wash fecal matter into ponds, rivers, and other water sources, spreading disease and bacteria.
Also, if people are not taught how disease is spread, the clean water could easily be contaminated through dirty water containers, dirty hands, and dirty dishes. These practices are a major cause of diarrhea, which contributes to many preventable child deaths. Education about hygiene is very important, and implementing sanitation practices, such as latrines and places to contain human waste, is also foundational.
R: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in teaching hygiene and sanitation?
J: Feminine hygiene for girls — it’s something you might not think of, but school attendance drops off dramatically once girls reach puberty. This is because of the stigma surrounding menstruation, lack of latrines and places to wash up at school, and lack of education about how to make and maintain reusable feminine hygiene products.
World Vision is helping to address these problems, along with installing pit latrines and washrooms at schools, so girls have a safe place to wash up so they can keep going to class. We are all about removing barriers to education.
R: Obviously, we have to customize our WASH programs for each community’s specific needs. How has the 20-year civil war with the LRA affected the progress of WASH programs here in Uganda?
J: In Uganda specifically, many communities, especially in the north, were displaced by the war. People were forced to live in camps to avoid being attacked or abducted. Now that the LRA has fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, people are returning to their communities.
The problem is that water and sanitation systems were built to support the high density of people in the camps for internally displaced people. But now that people aren’t living there any more, they no longer have access to those systems. Ironically, when people lived in camps, 60 percent of Ugandans had access to clean water — but now, that number is only 30 percent.
R: This is pretty complex. There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, is there? Where do you even start?
J: Addressing WASH issues comes down to evaluating the specific needs and challenges of each country and each community. We have a great playbook of water projects and systems that have worked — but, you’re right, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Drilling a well might work in one community, but a rainwater catchment system might work better in another community.
Watch related video: Walking in Sabina’s shoes — for water
Want to do something about bringing clean water to communities in need? Check out all the ways you can give!
Have more questions? Write them in the comments, and we’ll try to answer them in other posts before World Water Day on March 22.