Recently I was invited on a trip with World Vision donors to visit our clean water programs in Uganda. I'm really proud that World Vision's water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programming is among the most advanced in the sector and helps thousands of children and families in communities affected by drought, natural disasters, and poor living conditions around the world.
While in Uganda, I talked with John Steifel, World Vision's Uganda WASH program coordinator. I sat down with him for an informal interview so he could explain to me why we start with water in a community, and why clean water by itself isn't enough. He gave such a clear explanation of why sanitation and hygiene programs have to go hand in hand with bringing clean water. Here are the highlights:
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Rachael (R): Why is WASH so important to helping communities where World Vision works?
John (J): WASH is very 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.
Nine year-old Josephine collects water from a borehole drilled by World Vision in Uganda.
R: So why not just drill a lot of wells and put in filtration systems? Are all the sanitation and hygiene programs just as important?
J: Water without sanitation and hygiene doesn't work, because the clean water gets contaminated so easily. For example, if someone defecates 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 barriers to hygiene and sanitation education?
J: There is an element of feminine hygiene for girls. School attendance drops off dramatically once girls reach puberty 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 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: Are there specific obstacles our WASH programs face here in Uganda?
In Uganda specifically, many communities, especially in the north, were displaced by 20 years of civil war and unrest due to the LRA ( Lord's Resistance Army). People were forced to live in camps for internally displaced people 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. Sixty percent of Ugandans used to have access to clean water, but now that number is only 30 percent.
R: Does World Vision implement the same WASH strategies in every country we work in?
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 there is no "one size fits all" solution. Drilling a well might work in one community, but a rain water catchment system might work better in another community.
Make water the most important gift you give this year. Make your year-end donation a one-time gift to World Vision’s Clean Water Fund. Your contribution will help provide the life-giving gift of clean water and sanitation to communities that struggle with poverty and waterborne illness.