The importance of clean water

08 May 2018

Interview with

Helen Hamilton, Water Aid

The water that comes out of our showers or garden hose is as clean as the water in our kitchen taps, going through various stages of filtration and chemical removal to make it safe to drink. But not everyone has this luxury, as Izzie Clarke explores with Helen Hamilton from the charity, WaterAid.

Helen - Today, 844 million people are struggling to access clean water close to home and one in three people don’t have access to a decent toilet of their own so, as you can see, the situation’s really quite stark.

Izzie - That’s Helen Hamilton. She’s the senior policy analyst for health and hygiene at WaterAid.

How can charities like WaterAid classify whether someone has access to water or not?

Helen - Statisticians all over the world now record where people get their water from, how far they travel, and the source that they obtain it from so that means it might be boreholes or accessing it from groundwater. In terms of measuring it, if the whole round trip, so going to collect your water, queueing up to get it, and then coming home takes longer than a 30 minute round trip, we no longer count that as access.

Izzie - So it’s within this 30 minute journey to get water, come back, that’s almost the limit?

Helen - That’s very much the bare minimum, and we know that even that can have a huge impact on communities. We know that it’s mainly often up to women and girls to find and collect water. If you think about a woman who’s collecting the UN recommended amount of water, so that’s 50 litres per person, for a family of four every day and they’re having to go to a water source that’s a 30 minute round trip from their home even then we’re talking about a woman spending two and a half months a year alone on this one task.

We know that having clean water, having access to decent sanitation and good hygiene is possible for everyone, everywhere by 2030. We know progress is possible because if we look at examples like India, we’ve seen that within 15 years 300 million people have got access to clean water.

Izzie - Why are we putting in all of this effort to make sure we have clean water? Why is it so important?

Helen - It’s essential to have these three elements of access to clean water, decent sanitation which means access to a good toilet, and every single day to practice healthy behaviours which means washing hands after you go to the toilet or before you prepare any food, and having clean food storage. Bringing all these things together is the best way to ensure that people are much healthier and have a better quality of living.

Izzie - Because I imagine that last one, the good hygiene practices, basically underpins the values of the first two essentially?

Helen - It does. We know that often, changing behaviours is very hard to do. If you ever think about when you’ve tried to pick up a New Year’s resolution, actually the thing that you’re doing isn’t always hard but changing that behaviour and then you’re incorporating it into your day to day routine, can be quite a challenge if you don’t really think about how you’re going to do it. So making sure that good hygiene and handwashing and thinking through how we an be healthier is part of people’s day to day life is absolutely critical for protecting yourself against these diseases and having a better quality of life.

Izzie - What are the problems; what are the health risks because of not having access to clean water?

Helen - At the moment, we’re actually in a crisis point. This risks families health, it stops families from communities from reaching their full potential. We know that diseases like diarrhea, cholera, pneumonia, conditions such as undernutrition, and even some diseases that you might never have heard of, such as blinding trachoma, all have links to lack of access to clean drinking water, lack of access to decent toilets, and a lack of good hygiene practices to keep people healthy.

But also we know that where people are going to health care facilities: if you think about when you go to the doctor, you rarely do that because you’re feeling well, you normally go because you’re feeling poorly. And so where people are going to health care facilities to try and see a doctor, and there’s 38% of the health care facilities don’t have access to clean water, this means that doctors and nurses are either delivery babies or treating patients for critical illness, they’re not able to wash their hands or sterilise implements properly.

We know that more babies survive when hospital staff are not only trained in these medical techniques, but also given resources and training so that they can really put in place good infection prevention control procedures. Fewer children fall ill with diarrhea when communities receive clean water points and good hygiene promotion so a significant amount of disease can be prevented through access to this safe water supply, adequate sanitation, and better hygiene practices.

We even know that one in four newborn deaths are due to infections and sepsis that might have been prevented if babies had been delivered in places with safe water, decent sanitation and hygiene.

Izzie - Are there any ways that we can improve it? What do WaterAid do to help move that along and make sure people do have this access to clean water?

Helen - Organisations like WaterAid work with communities and understand what the challenge is, and then work with them to build up the provision of services with them and their governments. This means that services need to be fit for purpose, they need to be built to last, and this means involving people who are going to use the services, and making decisions about what they should be, where they should be from the very start. And also making sure, in this day and age, that they’re equipped to withstand future environmental challenges such as climate change. So that might mean having wells, boreholes, accessing groundwater where that makes sense, or rainwater harvesting. It’s often a complex mix and understanding what’s right for that situation.

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