Children and WASH crisis in Sierra Leone

 

By Mustapha Sesay

Mustaphasesay2007@yahoo.com

The need for pure drinking water and a safe environment has been a major concern in developing countries as it adversely affects the growth and development of children. As a way of tackling this issue there is the need for all to come up with diverse strategies of making the environment friendly with affordable cleaning water for marginalized societies. In most African states, governments and donor organizations continue to find it very difficult to effectively provide quality water to meet the needs of the growing populace.

Despite the intervention of certain donor partners like UNICEF, Water Aid and a host of others, the water crises still remain to be a thorn in the flesh. The situation is very acute during the mid of the dry season when there is a drop in the water table, and at the start of the rainy season when the water are polluted with the accumulated dirt or filth that has been left to accumulate in certain sections in our communities.

What happens when it begins to rain in places like the Moa Wharf in the East of Freetown is that the heavy downpour floods the gutters and public places normally used as market places; vegetables and other consumable products are openly displayed in these unhygienic places along with cooked food being sold nearby.

What happens here is that there is no shortage of flies depositing harmful bacteria on the foodstuff which people in the community, especially children, consume. It is alarming to note that most traders don’t clear away their rubbish at the end of the day and in the morning hours never have the time to clean before embarking on another day’s activities, thus paving the way for the transmission of diseases from the rotten products to the foodstuff.

These fruits and cooked food are eaten by mainly hungry and malnourished poverty stricken people, especially children, with little regard for sanitation facilities which in reality may not be the most immediate pressing problem that needs to be addressed. Another worrisome issue is that some of these traders are suckling mothers whose children are sometimes seen defecating nearby as the mothers are busy attending customers while at the same time attending their children; this signals the fact that a lot needs to be done in sensitizing the traders on the relevance of sanitation as a way of maintaining a healthy environment.

One major reason for this is that the cities and urban towns are developing at an alarming rate with more people and less job opportunities to satisfy their daily livelihood. With this the only source of income opened to them is petty trading.

Unfortunately, most do not have the money to secure space so they look out for any area with little regard for the surroundings where they sell and the effects on the customers. In the dry season, the problem of accessing water in the city and rural areas remains the same for rural and urban areas as young girls mostly school children are exposed to lots of risky situations as they spend most of the night queuing for water.

In other words, these school girls are not only left at the mercy of some foolish men but are exhausted to have time doing their assignments at home. In most schools, the sanitary conditions are very deplorable to the point that there is only one toilet facility for over two thousand children allowing others to rush into nearby bushes to defecate.

The situation becomes deplorable as both the boys and girls have to battle as to who will be the first to make use of the toilet. In the city of Freetown, the situation is the same as there were lots of reports from the public that they are either harassed by school children in the neighborhood. The health risks are increased where children do not understand the importance of good hygiene and have not been taught to wash their hands after defecation and before going for classes. As a result of poor environment and filthy water consumed by most children, many of them die from Diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Others suffer from poor health as a result. In the absence of pipe born water in the urban towns, it is a fact that the daily task of water collection dominates many children’s lives, leaving them with little time to attend school, relax or play. This is a concern to the West Africa Water Aid organization that is working with media institutions in the sub region to develop strategies for marginalized people to access quality water with improved sanitation for the growth and development of the children. In a recent visit to the rural areas, it was pathetic to see girls as young as eight years collecting and carrying the family’s water.

The size of the big water container was a pointer to charge the mother for abusing the rights of the child. According to a woman in the remote village, in the mid dry season they have to collect water from contaminated sources such as muddy pools which harbor harmful bacteria. Apart from the contaminated water consumed in congested places in the rural areas, it must be noted that the heavy pots of water carried by children have serious implications on their health and growth as a result of their physical immaturity.

Others say it affects the head, neck and spine. In extreme cases, deformity of the spine can lead to later problems in pregnancy and childbirth. Children are the most vulnerable to diseases which result from dirty water and poor sanitation such as Cholera, Typhoid and Dysentery. As well as being more likely to catch the diseases in the first place, children, especially those under five, are less likely to recover than adults.

Water Aid’s researches have shown that when communities are helped to establish water and sanitation facilities, household income rises due to an increase in economic productivity and families are able to pay for school fees, equipment and uniforms they could not previously afford. Many girls who are enrolled in schools without latrines drop out of school as they approach their teenage years. Establishing sanitation facilities in schools helps reduce their drop-out rates.

A lack of water and sanitation facilities also makes the recruitment of well trained teachers difficult, which sometimes results in schools being closed for days or weeks at a time.

The teachers who do accept posts in communities without water and sanitation face the same problems of water collection and disease as the pupils, and this affects the quality of their teaching and the amount of time they are able to dedicate to it.

Water Aid works to ensure that its projects respond to their needs. Mothers tend to have the best understanding of their families’ needs and women are encouraged to take an active role in all stages of projects.

Communities take decisions on where to site their water sources and tend to choose to locate them in the centre of the community to minimize the distance everybody needs to carry water. This often means that children are able to collect water for their families before they go to school in the morning, and when they return home in the afternoon.

Hygiene education is an essential part of Water Aid funded projects and in this area children have proved to be invaluable. Hygiene education often takes place through schools. Children are more open to discuss and change hygiene habits than adults whose behavior has been ingrained over a lifetime. Children who learn the importance of good hygiene practices will pass these on to their families, younger brothers and sisters and ultimately to their own children.

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