Tackling sanitation as part of a community-health approach

Published: 18 November 2013 10:08 CET

By Ombretta Baggio and Kate Roux, in Timor-Leste

In Timor-Leste, only 36 per of rural households have access to basic levels of sanitation. Nearly a third of the population have no choice but to collect dirty water from unsafe sources. Poor hygiene practices remain widespread and diarrhea is prevalent among children.

In the remote community of Bitirai in Timor-Leste, there is no electricity or running water. Sanitation levels were poor, and they tended to have little access to health services.

In 2011, the Timor-Leste Red Cross Society decided to implement a community-based health and first aid (CBHFA) approach to providing healthcare in Bitirai. Within the community of around 500 people, 30 of them have chosen to become Red Cross volunteers, mobilising and empowering their community to undertake beneficial changes to their health.

Bitirai has made huge improvements in terms of sanitation levels.

“I’ve seen a big change in the community since the approach was implemented” says Igidio Soares, head of the local state-run health centre. “This is largely because of the Red Cross. They are doing good work, they provide useful information on health and hygiene, and also engage the community in the construction of latrines so the community can act upon what they have learned.”

The CBHFA approach is used to encourage the community and volunteers to take charge of their own health needs and development.

As the volunteers are embedded within the community – a part of the community itself – they form a critical link to share important health and sanitation messages with the people who need them.

“I learned about the importance of hand-washing after using the toilet,” says 24-year-old mother Eva Da Conceicao Amaral. “I’m happy because the Red Cross helps my family, my children and my village.”

Timor-Leste Red Cross Society is the largest contributor of safe water supplies, sanitation and hygiene education in the most remote communities across the country. Since 2002, it has provided almost 50,000 people with access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene promotion initiatives.

The programme in Bitirai is just one part of wider efforts by the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to address the imbalance between action on sanitation and water. Both water and sanitation are crucial to promote community health, resilience, and human dignity.

These projects are part of the ten-year IFRC Global Water and Sanitation Initiative (GWSI) launched in 2005. The initiative aims to establish and improve long-term sustainable water and sanitation programmes. It is currently active in 75 countries, providing sustainable access to water, sanitation and improved hygiene.

Red Cross Red Crescent supports on average 3 million people annually with water and sanitation, and hygiene promotion activities. An estimated 8 million people have been supported by the Global Water and Sanitation Initiative (GWSI) from 2005 to 2012 through over 300 large-scale developmental water and sanitation projects.

The CBHFA approach is an integral part of the Red Cross Red Crescent efforts to increase access to health around the world. Locally-trained volunteers can bridge the gap in providing critical health knowledge to their communities and ensure there is equitable access to water, sanitation and health services for all.

Water and sanitation at IFRC