Safe drinking water and improved sanitation: The key to long-term community health

Published: 18 March 2015 15:11 CET

By Aradhna Duggal

Every year 22 March marks the World Water Day – a day on which we underscore the critical importance of water and remind ourselves that millions of people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water or adequate sanitation. For most of us, clean water and toilets are something we take for granted but in remote, rural places such as Kratie province in Cambodia, many communities are still drinking unsafe water and practising open defecation, leaving them vulnerable to disease and long-term health problems. 

“The main problem until today is related to water and sanitation. If the whole community has poor hygiene, they get more disease and spend more time and money on treatment. If we have clean drinking water, not so far from the community, that would be great,” says Hang Chansana, Cambodian Red Cross Society’s project manager for community health.

According to UNICEF, in Cambodia, 6.3 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and up to 75 per cent of the rural population lacks access to adequate sanitation. Sixty-six per cent of the people living in rural areas practise open defecation. Fifty children under-five die every day mainly because of preventable and treatable diseases, such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.

“My children often have stomach ache,” shares Pan San from Kaeng village. “When I’m around I can boil their drinking water, but I can’t when I’m out to work. They often have diarrhoea because of that.” A lack of access to safe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene practices undermine community health and well-being and heighten the risk of water-borne diarrhoeal illnesses and vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria.

The remoteness of the villages and poor conditions of the roads means access to primary healthcare and clinics remains a major challenge. In order to address these challenges in Kratie province, 340km north-east of the capital Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Red Cross Society adopted a harmonized approach to community health. Using simple tools, adapted to the local context, the Cambodian Red Cross Society has empowered its volunteers and communities with the knowledge and skills to identify and reduce health risks.

For most people in Kratie province, rainfall is the main source of drinking water. Water is collected in huge cement structures for storage over a long period of time. These structures are often left uncovered, not maintained sufficiently and can act as potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes. In order to raise awareness about these issues, volunteers have been regularly visiting the houses of fellow community members and checking that the concrete water jars for storing rainwater are covered and being cleaned correctly and frequently. Further, training on how to clean water filters has been carried out at household level.

“Most of the people here understand the importance of consuming clean water now. That’s why they rarely suffer from diarrhoea. Most people have their own water purification jar. Those who don’t have the jar boil the water before using,” shares Vong Sothea, a volunteer from Tamao Leu village. “And most importantly, they use toilets. Those without their own toilets, dig holes but in a proper way and do not defecate in the open like before. They also wash their hands more frequently now,” she adds.

Working with, rather than for, the community has yielded positive results. As trusted members of the community and being well-versed with local customs, practices and behaviour, volunteers have been able to access and work effectively with their communities and build knowledge and change behaviour and practises.

“I think only the community can truly help itself. An outsider can’t help people forever. If they [community members] learn how to do things, they get used to it and from then on they continue doing it,” says Chansana. Between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of households consuming filtered water on regular basis has gone up from 30 per cent to 66 per cent. Further, the percentage of people practising open defecation has significantly decreased from 53 per cent to 8 per cent. By the end of 2015, 48 villages and more than 66,000 people will have benefited from knowledge and training provided by Red Cross volunteers.

Increasing access to safe water and improved sanitation lead to healthier families and communities and strengthens their resilience.

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.