By Babatope Babalobi, in Monrovia
Clara town, founded by a Methodist missionary 40 years ago, is attracting global attention in recent years, as its inhabitants are burdened by the effects of poor, inadequate and over stretched sanitation facilities, unsafe drinking water supply, decrepit drainages, and poor hygiene practices.
The Clara community has a population of 48,000 with 967 fully built up houses (and another 67 unfinished houses) inhabited by 12,335 women and 11,730 men, people, according to a community census exercise. Its residents face huge challenges in accessing improved water supply, safe sanitation and hygiene services.
Access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services is generally poor in Liberia including its capital city Monrovia. Facilities have generally old and deteriorated no thanks to a 14 year old civil war.
Statistics are also unreliable, but a 2009 story by Allwestafrica.com reports that “just one-third of Monrovia’s 1.5 million residents
have access to clean toilets, and 20 to 30 cholera cases are reported weekly; in 2008 there were 888 suspected cases, 98 percent of them in Monrovia’s overcrowded shantytowns such as West Point, Buzzi Quarter, Clara Town, and Sawmill”
Raymond is a 45 year old male resident in Clara town, who admits to practicing open defecation because basic sanitation facilities are inadequate, unaffordable, and over stretched. He narrates his experience,
“When you go to the toilet, you stay in line, sometimes 100 people can be outside, and sometimes 50 people can be on the queue waiting to use the toilet. You may pou-pou (defecate) on yourself if you have running stomach”
Another resident, Veronica a 9th grade female student of Saint Mary’s Catholic School in Clara Town, says some of her colleagues often contact water borne diseases due to the poor WASH services. “One of my friends had got cholera after drinking “. As a way out the school pupils resort to buying packaged water in plastic bags: “In the school, we buy us spent $5 Liberian dollars to buy Mineral water”
Though there is a toilet in her school, there are no soap and hand towels for her to ensure personal hygiene after using the toilet facilities. If lack of hand washing items is only her headache in the school, it would have been better. 15 year old Veronica faces challenges in maintaining personal menstrual hygiene due to lack of safe water and sanitation facilities in the school, saying some of her colleagues including at times excuse themselves from class work in order to cater for their mistral needs: “If the menses of any of the female students start in school, then you will tell the Teacher, and you will come home. We often miss classes and lessons because of this.”
The situation is not better in her residence. There are virtually no household’s toilet facilities in Clara Town and residents depend wholly on the public toilets built 18 years ago. The toilets are not only inadequate but also expensive. According to Veronica: “there is no toilet in my house, and you have to spend $5 Liberian dollars each time you use the public toilets. If you use the toilets three times, you pay $15.” What happens when she does not have this fee? “Sometimes I toilet in the open, Sometimes, If you don’t have money, when you beg them, they will allow you to use the toilet”.
Lamenting on the poor and inadequate WASH facilities in the town, David Jacobs, Chair of Clara Town Community Council said: “We want our government to come to our aid”, with hands raised to the sky in helplessness.
“There is only one dump site in this town and only eleven public toilets which were built in 1984”, now grossly inadequate to meet the needs of members of the community to use. As a result, several residents still defecate in the open by the beach. “People toilet in the plastics and throw it into the oceans”, said Jacobs.
“We are dying of diarrhea and cholera. We are also dying of dysentery and malaria. We appeal to government agencies, charities and civil society organizations to come to our aid”.
When asked of efforts made by the community to address these challenges through self help projects, C. Donyeroreh, the Vice Chairman of the Clara Town Community Council: “ it is difficult getting individual households to construct toilets because “ people are almost living below poverty level. They do not have not have money to construct toilets or boreholes. They cannot afford it.
Most of the houses are also congested, so there is no space” The construction of wells is also not encouraged because the groundwater is salty as a result of the nearness of the community to the Atlantic Ocean.
This position is however, countered by a resident Raymond who said that it is possible for households to construct toilets. “Some houses have toilets and every landlord should be encouraged to construct toilets”, said Raymond.
Omarley Yeabah, a former adviser to the Ministry of health environmental planning unit, in Liberia, who is in charge of ensuring water quality and promoting public hygiene awareness, said government resources were thin. “The challenges are enormous – our lack of capacity, a lack of vehicles, just a few people working on this in each county.” Nevertheless, “The situation is not terrible, considering the war we just had.”