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Focus on water, sanitation and hygiene improves child health and nutrition in Pakistan

By David Youngmeyer

World Water Day, commemorated each year on 22 March, focuses attention on the importance of freshwater to sustainable development. World Water Day 2012 emphasizes the importance of water to global food security.

MUZAFFARGARH DISTRICT, Punjab, Pakistan, 21 March 2012 – Inside a dusty farm house compound in rural Punjab, 7-year-old Ume Hani helps her aunt Ume Hassan, 16, prepare flat bread. Ume Hassan sits on the ground, dipping her hands in clean water as she kneads the dough.

UNICEF reports on flood-affected communities in rural Pakistan that are rebuilding their water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.  Watch in RealPlayer


Bread is an important staple across Pakistan. Although clean water is only a small part of the bread making process, it is central to protecting Pakistan’s children from deadly diarrhoea and malnutrition.

Water and malnutrition

Like millions of others, Ume Hani’s family was badly affected by the monsoon floods that struck the country in 2010. They evacuated their home to escape the surging floodwaters, and returned to find damage to their home and crops. The floodwaters had also contaminated the ground water.

“When we returned home, the water from the hand pump was smelly and not safe to drink,” says Ume Hassan. “People would go to far off areas which were not affected by floods to fetch water. We also used to get water from the canals for drinking. Many of the children had diarrhoea, including my niece, Ume Hani, and many children became very thin.”

UNICEF provided emergency assistance including safe water, water purification tablets and jerry cans, and also supported sustainable, community-led safe water, sanitation and hygiene-related interventions.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2012/Zaidi
Ume Hassan, 16, uses safe water to prepare flat bread at her home on the outskirts of Chakar Dari Village, Pakistan.

“Safe drinking water is vital to avoiding water-related diseases, like diarrhoea, that can prove fatal for young children,” said UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist Sabahat Ambreen. “Repeated episodes of diarrhoeal disease also makes children vulnerable to other diseases and malnutrition.”
Diarrhoea is a leading cause of malnutrition in children under five years old. Over time, children can experience serious health effects including growth stunting and intellectual impairment. According to a national nutrition survey carried out in 2011, 46.3 per cent of rural children under age five were stunted and 33.3 per cent were underweight.

The floods also caused widespread damage to crops, contributing to food insecurity.

Hygiene and sanitation save lives

Improving sanitation and hygiene is essential to protecting the health and nutrition of children. In Chakar Dari Village, a behaviour change programme has encouraged families to construct or upgrade toilets and discouraged open defecation. Hygiene classes have taught children and their families the importance of washing hands with soap.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2012/Zaidi
Villagers collect safe drinking water from the UNICEF-supported water filtration plant in Chakar Dari Village, Pakistan.

“The hygiene promoters came to our school and we learned about hand washing, the importance of using toilets, and keeping safe from diseases,” said Ume Hani.

The campaign was so successful that the community was certified as open-defecation free. Muhammad Ibrahim, a medical technician who heads the village’s water, sanitation and hygiene committee says that children’s health has improved since the campaign.

“Children are not getting as sick. For every 10 patients before, now there are one or two,” Mr. Ibrahim said. Local shopkeepers say soap sales are increasing. “I’m proud of what has been achieved for the village.”

With the support of UNICEF and partners Punjab Rural Support Programme (PRSP) and the Hisaar Foundation, a water filtration plant was also installed in the village. The plant treats groundwater, making it safe to drink for the 300 families in the village and surrounding areas. A local committee oversees the operation of the plant and will take responsibility for its maintenance after the first year of operation.

Projects to boost income, food production

In nearby Pattal Village, which is also open-defecation free, UNICEF is supporting a pilot water processing project that will improve sanitation, agriculture and community income.

The community-run project will create a ‘wetland’ where sewage is treated through a series of large ponds. It will reduce the issue of uncontrolled sewage, and the treated water will be used to fertilize crops to boost food production.The project will also support income-generation projects, including a grove of citrus trees; chicken, cattle and fish farming; mushroom farming; and a biogas project.

“The contaminated water was a source of disease for children and their families, but following treatment, it will promote good health, increased income and food for the community, and contribute to better nutritional status for young children,” said Ms. Ambreen. “With all these interventions we can see positive health improvements in the community.”



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