The Spread of Information Thwarts the Spread of Disease: World Water Week in Washington DC

By Elena Davert

For those who could not attend World Water Week in Stockholm, last week’s Clean Water for Africa conference hosted by Water Advocates and Constituency for Africa was the next best thing. The conference was sponsored by groups such as Leadership Africa USA and Harambee International Development in order to raise awareness about the lack of clean water in Africa and the measures needed to combat it.

Although some regions are lucky enough to have access to water, from lakes, rivers or wells, these sources are often contaminated with feces, dirt, and lethal bacteria. Despite the dangers, many people continue to drink this water even though it causes serious illness and chronic diarrhea. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The conference focused on the importance of clean water as a part of improving hygiene and sanitation in many parts of Africa.  Although some regions are lucky enough to have access to water, from lakes, rivers or wells, these sources are often contaminated with feces, dirt, and lethal bacteria.  Despite the dangers, many people continue to drink this water even though it causes serious illness and chronic diarrhea.

During the panel of experts, solutions to hygiene and sanitation issues were highlighted, including water treatment techniques and education.  Robert Dell, president of The Water School, discussed the importance of families being able to treat their own water before consumption. He acknowledged that while boiling water effective for killing bacteria such as E. coli, wood and coal are not always available for fuel, and consistent exposure to burning fires can cause serious health problems.

But, according to Dell, hope for water purification can come in the form of sunlight, something that is abundant in Africa. Rather than expensive water purification methods reliant on solar panels, this method harnesses UV rays to kill water-borne bacteria.  By simply leaving plastic bottles of water in the sun for an entire day, people are able to purify their own water. The Kiwoko Hospital Safe Water Project in Uganda, for example, has integrated solar water disinfection as part of its healthcare education program for families.

John Etgen of Project WET also voiced the importance of hygiene in breaking the chain of water contamination in Africa.  Project WET has directed its efforts towards integrating hygiene and sanitation lessons directly into school curriculum by publishing guides on water, health, and disease prevention for teachers.  After equipping teachers with lesson plans covering germs, bathroom habits, and hand washing, diseases related to feces contamination in water dropped dramatically in WET’s pilot program at Lake Victoria Primary School in northern Uganda.  Teachers have reported that numbers of sick and fatigued students have dropped by more than half and that the numbers continue to improve.

Although Project WET’s materials been distributed to over 1,000 schools in sub-Saharan Africa and reached an estimated 830,000 students, their goal is that their message will spread beyond the classroom.  As with the solar sanitation programs instituted by The Water School, they want the health information taught in the classroom and spread to entire families.

To read more about clean water and hygiene, read: Innovation of the Week: Providing an Agricultural Answer to Nature’s Call and For Many Women, Improved Access to Water is About More than Having Something to Drink.

Elena Davert is a Research Intern for the Nourishing the Planet Project.

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