9th March 2015
In 1854 in London, England an outbreak of cholera swept through the Soho district. Rapid population growth and terrible sanitation meant that raw sewage was being dumped into the water supply with terrible consequences for the population. At the time, medical research on the spread of disease was limited to say the least and it wasn’t until a physician by name of John Snow turned his attentions to Cholera that things were to change.
Snow had experienced cholera years before and it was his work researching the outbreak that was to form the basis of an entire branch of modern medicine: epidemiology - the study of the cause and effect of disease within populations. By plotting the cases of cholera and speaking to the local population, Snow was able to locate the cause of the outbreak as being a nearby water pump that was supplying contaminated water to the local area.
Modern epidemiology is now able to give us a dizzying array of statistics around public health and it makes for some glum reading in Tanzania, where the problems of the Victorian era in England remain a major source of disease and death here. When you probe deeper into the various NGO’s that are involved with Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) projects, it gets worse still. Conditions that we would pop to the chemists for, even take a day off work for, are killers here. Nearly five children die every hour in Tanzania, simply because of a lack of clean water (almost half the population lack access to a safe water source) or a clean place to go to the toilet (only a quarter of the population have access to safe and clean sanitation facilities). Hard to imagine that diarrhoea can kill over 10,000 children under 5 years old every year isn’t it? (4) But it does.
It isn’t just the frightening mortality rates here in Tanzania that are the problem. The wider impact of such prevalent illness is enough to hold back an entire country from achieving its potential. Treating these highly preventable illnesses puts further strain on an already overburdened health service. School attendances suffer, education and industry are impacted, and parents can’t work as they have to stay home and look after sick children. Unicef’s recent report on school sanitation is a frightening insight into the reality of the situation across schools in Tanzania: 38% have no water source on site; 84% don’t have functioning hand washing facilities, virtually none having soap; 96% are without accessible toilet facilities for disabled children; and 52% don’t have doors on toilets to provide privacy for girls.(2,3) For girls entering puberty this is a major problem and leads to increased drop out rates from school, further impacting on efforts to improve gender equality within the country.
Until you see people drawing dirty, brown, bug filled water from riverbeds or see the conditions of the average school latrine, it is hard to comprehend how something we consider such a standard part of daily life, can still be such a source of illness here. Even where there is tapped water in a community, it may mean hours of walking to and from home each day simply to collect clean water, villages here lack distinct borders and are often spread out over many kilometres. This job typically falls to the women and children of the household. While the globe as a whole achieved the Millennium Development Goal for drinking water 5 years ahead of schedule in 2010, sub-saharan Africa is still not on track to meet that goal, or the one for improved sanitation, by 2015. Overseas aid is currently not even half of that estimated to meet the MDG financing gap (1). This is why the work of charity organisations like Raleigh International is so important to the sustainable development of Tanzania as a country.
Unlike in the UK and Western Europe, Cholera remains a threat within Africa, over 14,000 cases of it were recorded in 2006 in Tanzania. Just like in Nineteenth century England, the causes and the solutions remain broadly similar; improving the health, hygiene, and sanitation practices of the country lie at the heart of preventing the many different waterborne diseases that can debilitate communities, damaging education and productivity.
Only 1 in 5 people here wash their hands with soap before preparing food. (3) Unicef recognise that hand washing with soap alone can have the greatest impact on the spread of diarrhoea, reducing the condition by about 47%. This is where Raleigh international are able to have the sort of impact that many other charities find difficult to implement. Raleigh works in combination with a number of charity partners across Tanzania to deliver WASH programmes into communities and schools, typically in remote rural areas where the need for these projects is greatest. Alongside the government programmes and large scale organisations like Water Aid that provide essential infrastructure, Raleigh provides a key part of the efforts to change behaviour around WASH practices within Tanzania. By putting a group of enthused, passionate, and creative young people within a community for weeks at a time, they are able to engage with the local community and put in place programmes that can raise awareness of the importance of good WASH practices. Often these interactions within the community are with the young people, who Raleigh recognise as being the ‘agents of change’ capable of spreading these messages to family members and promoting them on a wider scale, making them sustainable and effective for the long-term.
“Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial for poverty reduction, for sustainable development, and for achieving any and every one of the Millennium Development Goals” UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon