Chapter 8: Liberia – The Importance of Water, Health & Sanitation
One of the many things we take for granted in the Western world is our use of a common tap, or a faucet, as they call it in the USA. Such a simple device and often overlooked. I can’t remember the last time I turned the tap on and thought – is this water safe to drink? Such questions are ones that we never have to address. To live in a country where questioning water quality is a continuous task, is something that was very new to me.
Living in the twenty first century, you make the assumption that everyone has access to clean drinking water, that everyone has access to hygenic toilets. But honestly, that just isn’t the case. In Liberia today 60% of the population have access to “improved” water, 18% have access to improved sewage sanitation and 5% have access to flushing toilets. A large proportion of the people, mainly in the urban slum areas, are defecating in openly in the streets or directly into the rivers – which also act as a water supply for washing and cleaning clothes. There is nothing pretty about faeces, especially when it is human waste. Seeing it – and on several occassions – standing in it, is really not pleasant at all. Not only is it unhygienic and poses increased health risks, but it is also humiliating for the people and offers them no sense of dignity. Especially for women. As a woman, I know how uncomfortable it can be on a monthly basis, so having no clean, safe and private area to use the toilet must be so degrading and distressing.
The WASH (Water, Sanitation and Health) is a major project, so big that Oxfam must work in a consortium with five other agencies to actually tackle this enormous problem. Oxfam is the lead agency within the consortium and reports directly to donors and fellow partners. A key benefit of working with other agencies is that you can share learning, technical and design development and use the strengths within each partner. The programme is monitored and results evaluated, with results being shared with the Government. Some examples of issues currently being worked on are hygiene promotion in rural areas, issues with hand drilling for water, issues with gender and disability, looking at how to scale up the project and roll out to everyone, household and public latrines. The issues are massive – education is key, as well as funding to support building of new latrines and water distribution centres.
We looked at four areas: water pumps, water distribution centres, pubilc latrines and household latrines
The Oxfam-funded water distribution centres have been set up in slum communities. These centres are locked and gated facilities with large water towers, and open daily from about 7am-10pm. The centres are not connected to a mains water supply – such a thing doesn’t exist in Liberia – but are fueled by a diesel generator that pumps water directly from a drilled bore hole in the ground. These machine dug holes are about 40metres deep, which provide “clean enough” drinking water. Every morning, women queue at the water distribution centres and fill their 10 galloon water butts for 5LB$, which is about 5 US cents – and about 3p in sterling. Apart from having to get up every morning to go and get water, these women amazed me with their grace, strength and agility to carry such weights on their head!
Water Distribution Centre Manager
Filling up for water
Oxfam’s role in a project like this was to build the water distribution centre and educate the community on how to form an elected Water Board who would be responsible for recruiting a water distribution manager, and responsible for the cleaning, maintance and purchasing of the diesel required to fuel the centre.
In smaller communties, Oxfam has built a number of public wells offering free water. These pumps get water directly from the ground, again about 40 metres deep, and give the local families free access to “clean enough” water. Each hand pump serves about 50 houses, but each house can home up to three families. The pumps are always open.
When it comes to the issue of water, much of the hardware is in place. What is important now is the delivery of education regarding basic hygiene, to prevent against diseases. Before the intervention of Oxfam and the WASH consortium only about 25% of the population had access to drinking water, it is around 60% now.
Toilets. Ah, Liberian Toilets! Well, as I discussed in my previous blog, out in rural communities the toilets are dug straight into the ground with two boards either side for you to squat. I didn’t really have a problem with this because I have used this system in Sweden. I lived in Stockholm for 8 years, and we often visited friend’s summer cottages, which were located in rural areas. One of these had such a toilet. I remember being heavily pregnant at the time so I found it very uncomfortable to use!
In slum areas around 80% of people are open defecating as there are no sewage systems in place. It literally is a case of pooing in a plastic bag and throwing it away “Mind Your Business” shouted as the plastic bags are thrown through the air. We saw some public “toilets” which were rickety structures on the river side. The human waste goes straight into the river. Awful during the day, would be frightening at night – don’t forget there is no electricity in the slum areas so NO light at all. These toilets are especially dangerous to young women, as violent crime against women is sadly all too common.
Oxfam has funded public toilet blocks in some slum communities. Again, as with the water distribution centres, Oxfam has educated and trained the staff to run the public toilets as effectively as possible. The government too has installed County Council toilet blocks, which is a positive thing. The problem arising is that it costs 10 LB$ per person (half price for children) so often families can’t afford to use the facilities. We saw several sites where human waste was literally infront of the public toilet blocks.
We did see something positive though. We went to the equivalent of the Blind Association. These toilet blocks have been specifically designed so that blind people using their stick can guide themselves to the toilet.
The Blind Association
Public Latrines (in red)
The final project we looked at was my favourite. The last day of our remarkable journey through Liberia – was the hardest for me. The stories of the slum communities where desparately upsetting. The stories from women how difficult and degrading it is to use horrible riverside “toilets” – especially during their menstral cycle or when pregnant, or the fears they face when needing the toilet during the night. I found it very difficult to see hope in all the suffering…
But then I found the Tiger Worm….
It is my resounding positive memory of Liberia. These wriggly little earthworms, which we dug up from the soil, maybe the answer to many people’s prayers. A new eco-toilet has been designed which is remarkably simple and inexpensive to build. These lovely little worms – 2 kilos of them – are put in the toilet system and live there happily consuming the human waste. To make this system even more exciting, the worms produce their own faeces which can be collected and used as a fertiliser!! It is an amazing, yet quite simple thing. We met with the Monrovian County Council who have promised to roll out more of these Tiger Worm toilets based on the results and findings of the Oxfam project.
Meet Diamond – a beautiful Liberian lady who has one of the Oxfam pilot Tiger Worm toilets in her home…. She is proud and extremly happy, and has noticed a big difference in the health of her children. Not only has she a Tiger Worm toilet, but she was educated on the basic hygiene message of WASH YOUR HANDS!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to my own children since arriving home from Liberia – Have you washed your hands??!!!!
Tiger Worm toilet
Oxfam rely on donations to support their incredible work. It really is the case of lift one life and you will lift whole communities.
I am hosting an Oxfam event on Sunday 9th March at the Morpeth Rugby Club. We are trying to Zip 100 men and women, across 200ft from a 150ft high mobile crane! Having fun and raising our goal of £12,500. If my stories have inspired you, please help us reach our goal by donating via….