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At a glance: Nigeria

Community-led water and sanitation projects take root in Nigeria

This week’s UN Millennium Development Goals summit highlighted the importance of reaching the world’s most disadvantaged children in order to achieve the MDGs with equity by 2015. Here is a related story.

By Greg Marinovich

CALABAR, Nigeria, 23 September 2010 – Esther Etowa’s lively face is quick to break into an engaging smile. Her deep voice can change from a comforting murmur into a boom that can be heard across the width and breadth of a village – a useful quality in Ms. Etowa’s work.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Zenande Mfenyana reports on one woman's work to improve hygeine in Nigerian villages.


As a women’s organizer, quieting the weeping of sick children and of mothers who have lost their children to water-borne disease is Ms. Etowa’s passion and calling.

“There may be a day when you come to the community, and you hear people crying,” she explained.  “A lot of children are dying.”

Mobilizing for health

UNICEF figures show that Nigeria alone can account for 12 per cent of all child deaths under five. This means that every day nearly 3,000 children under five die in Nigeria. Most of these lives could be saved through low-cost prevention and treatment interventions.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1745/Eseibo
In Cross Riverstate, Nigeria, a boy collects water from a motorized pump.

“I have that passion for women and children,” said Ms. Etowa. “I look at the way [men] treat them – they don’t value children. I’ve been looking for a way to put smiles on their faces.”

In 1997, Ms. Etowa began mobilizing women into discussion groups that she informally called ‘woman talk.’ Ten years later, so many women had joined her society that the official Women Empowerment and Rights Initiative was born.

Ms. Etowa’s ‘eureka’ moment came in 2008, when she was invited to attend a workshop on a new programme aimed at bringing better sanitation and hygiene, as well as safe water, to the most vulnerable rural communities.

Flexible and community-driven

Nigeria is the world’s eighth most populous country with some 151 million inhabitants. Of these, an estimated 103 million are not using improved sanitation facilities, and open defecation is rife.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1737/Eseibo
In Nigeria's Cross River state, women and children fetch water from a shaded stream.

Director General for Rural Development in Nigeria’s Cross River State Eko Atu said that, because most of his region’s population in clustered by riverbanks, a common practice is to defecate into the river – and then to use that same water for other purposes.

In recent years, however, a revolutionary Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach is helping to achieving sanitation in areas like Cross River State. Communities are now discarding the commonly accepted doctrine of what constitutes an acceptable toilet – a cement slab-covered pit latrine with brick walls – and instead are endorsing more flexible definitions of latrines. The only requirement is that 100 per cent of residents in targeted communities ceased open defecation once and for all.

The goal of CLTS is to have complete, unified commitment from communities.

“The communities themselves have been able to buy into the project,” said Mr. Atu. “It is not a government project. If you go out there, you will see that they have taken ownership of the project. It is the communities themselves that drive the whole process.”

Sanitation in schools and homes

Often the CLTS programme begins at the local school, an approach that the district water board now includes in their overall policy.

“You don’t have a school in Cross River state where you don’t have water and sanitation facilities,” said Mr. Atu. “Children are taught to wash their hands after using the toilet.” said Atu. The children then take this message home, he said.
From here, the water and sanitation partnership between UNICEF, the European Union, local government and community-based organizations help move the project into homes and sensitize communities about the dangers of poor sanitation. 

Using whatever materials are available locally, villagers then begin building their own latrines. They pitch in and support each other to ensure every family has its own facility. As a consequence of these low-tech interventions, child mortality in Nigeria has decreased between 1990 and 2008 by more than 4 per cent – a significant accomplishment.

In the six states supported by EU funding since 2008, more than 17,000 latrines have been built in 836 communities. More than 100 of these communities have attained the goal of being declared free of open defecation.

Safe water for all

Besides advocating for improved sanitation, the MDG on water and sanitation – one of a set of eight internationally recognized targets for reducing poverty worldwide – also calls for wider global access to safe, clean drinking water. Nearly 64 million Nigerians are not using improved drinking water sources. In fact, the numbers are likely even higher, as many of the rural water supply systems are non-functioning.

Many pumps and other mechanical components essential to keeping clean water flowing are quite capable of being maintained and repaired by local technicians, yet they stand broken.

Onun Usani, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Co-ordinator in the local Yakurr council, believes that the reason for this is that communities are frequently not involved in decision-making and do not have control of mutual assets such as water pumps – and therefore take no responsibility for them.

“We are trying to give them a sense of ownership, that they own this programme,” said Mr. Usani. “By the time we withdraw, they should stand on their own.”

Through this initiative, more than 1,000 communities and 60,000 schools have now received a sustainable supply of potable water. More than 1.2 million people who never had access to clean water before now enjoy nature’s most fundamental gift without fear of disease.

And the project has found its way into the heart of community mobilizer Esther Etowa. “[Women and children] are now healthy, and that there are now no more deaths,” she said.  “They give us the testimonies – there is no record of cholera this year, no record of typhoid. I feel happy – it’s like the sky is my limit!”



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