Trained community members act quickly to protect water sources following severe floods in Malawi

Published: 18 March 2015 11:47 CET

By: Kate Seymour with Erin Law, IFRC

Almost everyone in Zomba district in Malawi used to have access to safe water and sanitation. But when floods destroyed more than half of the latrines in the district in January and February 2015, people knew they had to act quickly to keep their water sources safe and stop the spread of waterborne diseases.

Local pastor and Malawi Red Cross Society volunteer, Isaac Joseph has been working hard to ensure that the immense damage done to water and sanitation facilities does not impact the health of his community. Together with other community-based volunteers, Joseph is helping to construct new latrine facilities and hand washing stations.

He understands the importance of water and sanitation because of the training and experience he has gained over the last four years in community-based health and first aid.

“We know that it is important now that we have latrines and clean water. We are already working to make sure that we don’t go back to the way we were before we had latrines,” says Joseph.

Following the floods, Joseph and members of his community were able to reassess their priorities relating to health, water and sanitation using strategies and processes they had learned during their community-based health and first aid training. Together, the community decided that their post-flood priorities were latrine coverage, preventing malaria transmission from stagnant water, and re-establishing gardens that had washed away. Joseph’s training has also helped him to construct tippy-taps, which are plastic jerry-cans or water bottles suspended on a rope that can be made to tip and pour water, thanks to a wooden foot pedal, for hygienic hand-washing.

The Malawi Red Cross Society is working with the community to slowly build back these and other water and sanitation facilities destroyed by the rising waters. During the crisis, heavy storms destroyed the structures that covered latrines. Flash floods caused latrine pits to overflow, spreading human faeces throughout communities, and boreholes were destroyed. Cholera has broken out in districts south of Zomba and the potential for it to spread into Zomba is significant.

The sodden soil and the rising water table has made it increasingly difficult to desludge flooded pits and construct new safe latrines. However, Red Cross staff and volunteers, like Joseph, have already repaired 20 boreholes in the southern region and are building 100 latrines. Two kilograms of soap have been provided to each flood-affected family.

This is essential work if the district is to quickly return to pre-flood levels of sanitation. In December 2014, after four years engagement with the Malawi and Danish Red Cross Societies, almost everyone living in Zomba had access to a latrine. In 37 of the 46 villages, basic sanitation coverage was 100 per cent. In the remaining nine villages, only ten per cent of people did not have secure access to a latrine. Following the floods, latrine coverage across the district dropped back to 40 per cent.

However, community members like Joseph who have been trained in community-based health and first aid are equipped and ready to raise latrine coverage back to its former levels. Joseph knows how to work with his community to map the places where people defecate, and the sanitation and water facilities. He knows that a latrine needs to be 30 metres away from a water source. He knows the hygiene messages that are most important to prevent the spread of disease. Most importantly, he knows his community and he knows how to persuade them to work with him to rebuild their sanitation infrastructure.

“It is difficult to see them start all over again from nothing,” says Joseph. “But I have hope for the future.”

Under the umbrella of the Global Water and Sanitation Initiative 2005 to 2025, the Red Cross Red Crescent addresses both acute water and sanitation needs in emergencies (such as cholera), as well as in the long-term developmental context. To date the initiative has served over 15 million people with safe water and improved sanitation facilities in more than 80 countries. The plan is to reach an additional 15 million by 2025. Further to this, 6.5 million people have been reached by hygiene promotion activities and campaigns.

The Global Water and Sanitation Initiative has been made possible through the support of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their partners, AusAID, Cartier Foundation, Coca Cola, European Commission, Land Rover, Nestle, P&G and UK aid.