Safe water and toilets save lives
April 2013 - Through wisps of white floating clouds, the morning sun beams down on a group of children pumping water from a borehole deep in the dusty ground.
The children live in Zibanani village in Plumtree, a small, rural, semi-arid town on the border with Botswana. They are orphans who were living on the edge of survival. Besides the tragedies of losing loved ones, they lacked access to the most basic social services including access to safe water and a toilet or an improved latrine. But that has now changed.
UNICEF has supported the community, through Mvuramanzi Trust, a local NGO, to dig wells in this drought-prone region and to train residents to build “improved” latrines for the most vulnerable people in a community of about 600 families. The community now has access to safe water and so far 23 men have been trained to build improved latrines, and are now working as “trainers of trainees”.
Nkululeko Mpofu, the project officer for the Trust, enthuses about what they have been able to achieve. “The people were keen to be trained to build toilets and to learn how to promote hygienic behaviour, such as hand washing at critical times and disposing of their rubbish.”
The community holds meetings to identify the most vulnerable – for the most part they are households with orphans and/or people sick with AIDS-related illnesses. The latrines take two weeks to build and the beneficiary has to pay a subsidised price of $20 USD. Since the project began two years ago in this area, some 120 families now have an improved latrine.
Sixteen-year-old Ofentse Ngwenya is one of the beneficiaries. She lives in a run-down home with her sickly grandmother, her sister, 17, who is deaf and has never been to school, her brother, 18, and younger sister, 12.
When Ofentse’s father died in 2008, her mother went to work as a cleaner in neighbouring Botswana but now suffers from TB and is being treated in Botswana. Their small plot of maize is drying up due to lack of rains.
On the day of the interview, her older brother has taken the grandmother, who cannot walk, in a wheelbarrow to a traditional healer. Ofentse explains that it is to see whether the healer has more success in curing her many ailments than the nurses in the clinic.
Despite her predicament, Ofentse has a quiet dignity about her. She seems used to the dust as it blows into her face. Her large eyes light up when she talks about the new toilet. “Before the toilet was built, I had to go outside. I had no privacy, especially when the trees shed their leaves; everyone could see me.” Ofentse adds that, when her mother visited last year, she was also glad that they had spent $20 USD on the latrine. “She told me it was a risk for us girls to use the bush for a toilet.”
Ofentse has many chores including fetching water with her brothers and sisters, cooking, washing the clothes and cleaning. She fits her chores around school and homework, which she does by candle light. “I volunteer to keep the latrine clean as my grandma can’t walk,” says Ofentse without a trace of complaint. However, she is quick to add that she does not have to clean the toilets at school. “The pupils who are naughty do that. And I am a prefect,” she says with a smile.
She talks about how their life has been made easier now they have safe water near their home. “Before, we used to fetch water from a river; when the river nearby dried up we would walk about 10 kilometres.”
Besides making Ofentse’s life easier, giving her more time for other things, like attending school, water is no longer putting her health at risk.
The project is being gradually scaled up throughout the rural areas. As well as building latrines and digging wells, UNICEF is supporting community members to become trained hygiene promoters and village pump mechanics.
Yet there is still a long way to go. At independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had a well developed urban sector and a neglected rural sector. Although there have been efforts to redress this imbalance, 98 per cent of those without safe water live in rural areas and up to 42 per cent of the rural population defecate in open areas.
The economic and political crisis has also led to the deterioration of urban water supplies. During 2008-2009, Zimbabwe suffered one of the largest cholera epidemics ever recorded in Africa, which resulted in nearly 100,000 cholera cases and 4,288 deaths in one year.
In response to the cholera outbreak UNICEF supported the establishment of a WASH Emergency Response Unit (WERU) to ensure that all cholera emergencies were dealt with within 72 hours. WERU and partners supplied over 300,000 families with soap, oral rehydration salts, water purification tablets and storage containers as well as hygiene promotion. Safe water was also trucked to more than 108,000 vulnerable people.
UNICEF and partners have also continued provision of water treatment chemicals since early 2009, supported rehabilitation of the water supply and sanitation systems in the country’s towns and refresher training courses for attendants working on the plants. One of the towns benefitting from assistance is Masvingo, home to about 100,000 people. Clever Runovuya, the waterworks superintendent for Masvingo City Council, explains how this massive water plant, situated over the stunningly beautiful Lake Mutirikwiis still only works at half capacity. “We can only open the city’s water supply between 4am-3pm. We now give people the best quality water, but not enough water,” he says. UNICEF plans to support the plant’s rehabilitatation.
Although cholera is now more under control, Zimbabwe still has high mortality figures. A significant contributory factor is lack of access to safe water and sanitation. Out of every 1,000 live births, some 94 children die before their fifth birthday. Diarrhoea is still the fourth largest childhood killer accounting for nine per cent of deaths of children under five years.