WASH and learn: Community leadership and best practices make the difference

Jun 23, 2010


John Sauer
Head of External Relations, International Programs, Water For People

I've been traveling the past three weeks in Bangladesh and West Bengal visiting water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) organizations and their field programs.

I've covered a fair amount of ground and have seen the work of international as well as local NGOs.
The reality on the ground is that compared to five to ten years ago -- when many villagers did not have either safe drinking or a sanitary latrine-- the situation has improved. In Bangladesh, death caused by diarrhea has dropped significantly in the past several years. In fact, in most of the villages I visited there was at least one tube well per a few families if not a tube well per family. Many folks I spoke with attribute the increase in the amount of safe drinking water as a major reason for the substantial drop in death. Before this rapid expansion, many families collected water from the ubiquitous ponds of Bangladesh and West Bengal. According to the Water For People country coordinator Rajashi Mukherjee , "The ponds are absolute death traps; hygiene is the last think you can associate with them." Fortunately, the habit of collecting water from ponds has, for the most part, been broken. 
However, greater improvements will be essential to further reduce WASH-related disease and sickness and improve quality of life for the population of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Between 20,000 and 40,000 people still die of diarrhea in Bangladesh, and in India the figures are astronomically higher. In fact, a few days ago there was a report in the local Bangladeshi paper that five people had died of diarrhea. Imagine reading such a story in your hometown paper.
The communities I visited that achieved safe water, sanitation, and hygiene had strong local leadership, active community health and hygiene workers, and in many cases active leadership from children -- “child brigades” -- to pressure the community.

Some of the most exciting work I saw in the field was the improvement of WASH quality in schools. In one of the schools I visited, children had been involved in the design of their own toilets. The girls in particular demanded a separate changing room and an adjacent incinerator where they could have privacy for disposal during menstruation. Before these programs were put in place, many of the children walked home to use the toilet and thus missed school. Girls in particular could miss three to four days of school each month, sometimes even missing exams.

When partners converge -- communities, local government, NGOs and international donors -- it is possible for communities in Bangladesh and West Bengal to build capacity and improve their WASH conditions. There is a great opportunity to share success stories and best practices. The power of increasing the role of children and adolescents should not be forgotten. Making sanitation and hygiene a matter of status has also been powerful tool to motivate people to change behavior. 

Overall, I've been amazed at how much is happening on the ground. Despite problems, the issue seems entirely solvable here. Communities are transforming with access to WASH. Health has improved, new job opportunities have arisen, and more children are finishing school. I hope that donors take notice of this transformation and work with Bangladeshis and West Bengalis to make even more progress.

-- John Sauer is the Director of Communications at Water Advocates.