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Water & Environmental Sanitation: a fundamental part of UNICEF Indonesia's mission

© UNICEF/IDSA/051/Moncrieff

If there was such a thing as the ‘glamorous’ side of aid work, then digging holes for latrines would hardly qualify.

For UNICEF, the area of water and sanitation – the supply of clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing, and the availability of sanitary toilet faculties is a core function. In emergencies a disease epidemic can be one dirty drop of water away.

After the December 2004 tsunami that devastated the Aceh, an estimated 91% of sanitation infrastructure lay in ruins. Water supplies were destroyed, with 85% of piped networks, treatment plants and other facilities wrecked.

“With that kind of devastation you have to act quickly,” says UNICEF’s Banda Aceh Water and Environmental Sanitation Officer, Tim Grieve. “It’s so fundamental – without water you cannot survive. It is the critical life source.”

After the December 2005 tsunami in Aceh water and sanitation experts were among the first on the ground, coordinating the delivery of clean water to displaced people. UNICEF ordered water testing kits, water tankers, jerry cans, water bladders, soap, buckets, squatting pans for latrines and mobile treatment plants. Hygiene promotions officers arrived to work with the communities. That there was no major wave of water-borne diseases, no diarrhoea or dysentery epidemic, no cholera is a silent and unseen testament to the speed of UNICEF response.

After the emergency phase, the work continues in the camps where the displaced live, in schools and community centres. Communities not affected by the tsunami also are part of UNICEF’s 2006 plan for Indonesia.

© UNICEF/IDSA/052/Estey

Inland from Meulaboh, one hour by plane from the Aceh capital, UNICEF is working with local partners to install clean water supplies to five existing government schools. The schools, many of which have been standing for years, do not have clean water supplies or hand washing facilities.

“Often whatever water there is will be covered with algae,” says Eka Setiawan, UNICEF's Water and Environmental Sanitation Project Officer based in Meulaboh. “The supply is contaminated with very high chemical content so we are installing purification systems”

A simple two step purifying system has been installed at the primary school in Kawai XXVI district. It first washes the sediment out of available bore water, and then cleans it with antibacterial solution. The clean water it produces is available not only to the school children, but to the whole community. A ditch system is currently being built to drain spare water into local paddy fields.

Schools are often the focal points of villages in this rural part of Aceh, where the buildings can be used by the entire community. UNICEF teaches hygiene and sanitation practices to local school children, in the belief they will be the message carriers for their neighbourhoods. From an early age children learn about washing their hands with soap, not contaminating drinking water with inappropriate use, and proper sanitary practices.

At Sdn. Negri Ujong Tanjong School in Meulaboh district, Grade 5 has a strong grasp of the basics.

“Water from the river must be boiled,” says Agi who is 10. “You must drink only clean water. Sometimes you clean it yourself but sometimes it might be filtered.”

Twelve year old Anto says he eats with his hands, so “I always wash them first, with proper soap, because of the germs. My teacher told me it is important because if I don’t wash my hands I could get a stomach ache.”

“Teaching the fundamentals to children is a vital part of our activities,” says Tim Grieve. “If we just build toilets and fresh water and we don’t talk to children about being healthy, then the toilets will fall into disrepair and nothing will be sustainable”

In December 2005, a new chapter started for UNICEF when the Indonesian military withdrew the last of its troops from Aceh province and the GAM separatist rebels announced the disbanding of their armed wing. UNICEF was able to go into far flung villages in the Aceh interior to work with communities on repairing and restoring water infrastructure that had suffered and degenerated through the 30 years of violent clashes.

“Our movement is free in those areas now,” says Eka Setiawan. “Before there were serious security issues, which prevented us helping people.”

Working with local and international partners, UNICEF has started water and waste management schemes in communities that have for years been cut off from aid because of the internal conflict.

“We are helping people with the most fundamental aspect of their life,” says Tim Grieve. “Without a good clean water supply, people cannot survive.”



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