20 March 2013

Liberia: Water and Sanitation Problems Driving Children From School

Photo: Liberia Government
President Sirleaf quenches the thirst of a child shortly after dedicating a water pump.

Ah...o say....! Ah oh...say! We will make sure water and sanitation issues are addressed on this campus!", Sarta S. Bawoh yells a battle cry as her followers answer, "say!"

Sarta, 18, is contesting running for vice president of the students at the G. W. Gibson High school in Monrovia.

Her campaign issue is an unusual one in a country where student politics usually focus on better tuition and lower fees. But Sarta insists the lack of clean water and sanitation facilities at her school are the biggest issue these students face.

"I am talking about water and sanitation as a high school politician because I know it will encourage students to come to school," says Sarta. After the rally in the rundown canteen of the school as and supporters chat she says,"You cannot learn effectively and efficiently as you would wish in an environment where you have to leave classes to look for water to drink."

Ten years since the end of Liberia's devastating 14-year civil war just 1 in 4 Liberians has access to safe drinking water according to the World Health Organization. Local advocates say the real number is actually much lower.

Half of all Liberians have no access to a toilet at all and use streams or open areas. Most of the rest use inadequate toilets. Outbreaks of water borne diseases like cholera occur regularly. A 2008 WHO report found 18 per cent of all deaths in Liberia are caused by illnesses related to poor sanitation.

Now Liberia is in its months-long dry season things are even worse. Wells have dried up. Women and children are rising at 4am to walk for miles to find water.

For students like Sarta the lack of water poses big problems. Pipe borne water provided by recently restored government water services is not safe for drinking because main pipe lines are old and rusty. Students who can afford it must buy clean water in sachets sold by street vendors. Students are spending up to US30c a day for water says Sarta. That adds up to an extra $36 a year on top of school fees. In a country where 90 per cent of people live on $1.25 a day that extra can mean the difference between going to school or not.

Others persevere without water or with unsafe water. Neither is a good option says

Lack of water negatively impact learning

Students are bearing the brunt of it. Education has been a key priority of the Liberian government as it rebuilds from war. Generations have missed out on educations and the lack of skilled labor has been a big weight on development. But students and teachers say you can't improve education without ensuring students have clean water and toilets.

Sarta sweats profusely in the equatorial Liberian sun as the crowd of students around her fan themselves with copy books. Eventually she gives in, stops speaking and runs to get a drink. There is no clean water provided at the school. Students are forced to buy sachets of supposedly purified water that are sold throughout the city. In a country where 90 per cent of people live on less than $1.25 a day, that is an expense many children and their families cannot afford.

"Some days I spent 20 Liberian dollars (US30c) on water," says Sarta in between swigs from her sachet. ". If I don't have money to drink and no body helps me it means that whole day I will learn nothing because my focus will be, "How can I drink? Water is life. "

Children's ability to learn is greatly impacted by a lack of water according to Abraham G. Weah, Medical Director of Monrovia private medical clinic, Medical Consultants Associate Incorporated.

"If the child does not drink for a day it reduces the child's thinking ability," says Weah. "The mind will be on thirst. If the child does not drink for a whole day it may lead to dehydration which is very bad medically."

Dealing with thirst is one thing; lack of access to the restrooms is another. problem especially for females. In the girls' toilets, the commodes are full with human waste; the floors are flooded with urine, the aggressive odor of the bathrooms scares away Sarta.

"I can remember right after the Christmas break there was no water on campus and I was menstruating, as you know not every day Water and Sewer can supply water. Whenever I am, I have to change under clothes three times a day.

Sarta bends her head and looks at the door; she lowers her voice as if she is afraid or ashamed. "But there was no water so they locked the restroom. I was so embarrassed I had to lie that I was sick because I was ashamed to tell the Principal and other lecturers that I was menstruating because they are men. I had to say I was sick so that they can allow me to go home. "

Sarta had to miss lessons for two days. She this affects her education because she misses subjects like Math, physics, Chemistry which her classmates were unable to properly explain to her.

Those subjects are important to her because she want to become a Petroleum Engineer. ;

But the water problem does not only stay at the school. Sarta and many other girls have to fetch water every morning before going or late at night using study time. The less number of women who are educated in Liberia can be blamed on the poor water supply to communities says Apollos Nwafor, team leader WaterAid Liberia and Sierra Leone. " let's use a girl child who wakes up at five o clock in the morning because she has to go to school at seven thirty, then she has to go and fetch water and I see that happen a lot because I go to visit

communities. She takes a lot of time maybe to go and get three buckets of water because she has to go back and forth. By the time she is done it's late." Poor sanitation costs Liberia 17.5 million US Dollars each year, according to a desk study carried out by The Water and Sanitation Program (WSP). This sum is the equivalent of US$4.9 per person in Liberia per year or 2.0% of the national GDP. 1.2 million Liberians use unsanitary or shared latrines 1.7 and million have no latrine at all and defecate in the open the report says.

The poorest quintile is almost 7 times more likely to practice open defecation than the richest. Open defecation costs Liberia US$11 million - yet eliminating the practice would require less than 350,000 latrines to be built and used, the report stresses.

Nearly a decade after the end of Liberia's civil war and after big commitments from government to fix the broken systems, water and sanitation is still a huge problem for Liberians. With little time at

the end of the WASH compact which is a two year process where government committed to a series of improvements in the WASH sector.

Advocates say they have dragged their feet.

"If we want the people of Liberia to have sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation we need a minister or even the president muster the courage like the minister of finance did in the energy sector.

They need to ensure that more money is put in the budget for water and sanitation," says Prince Kreplah the head of a consortium of five civil society organizations working in the WASH sector.

Kreplah says, "The way finances are been apportioned points to how those sectors are prioritized and then the development partners will follow that trend. If we are to solve this problem of water and Sanitation in a conclusive and sustainable manner, than we need giant political step to be taken by the government."

'Completely different here'

Abdou Koroma, the Secretariat Coordinator of the National Water, Sanitation Hygiene Promotion Committing at the ministry of Public Works says studies have shown that the lack of WASH cost as many deaths as AIDS TB and Malaria and as such more money should be given to the sector to save lives.

" I believe that every sector is hungry for money. I may give some practical points why water and sanitation should be a priority. You give me electricity without safe water to drink you are telling me to drink dirty water and die. If you look at days lost by people who are coming down with water borne diseases and you look at their contribution to what could make the economy boost."

The Liberian governments and some international partners review report of the compact say they have completed sixty percent of the compact. A recent independent report on the compact by Civil Society Organizations (CSO) says that the government was only able to meet thirty percent of commitments. The CSO's report concludes that only four of the seventeen deliverables perform better, the rest of the thirteen deliverables failed receiving scores marks ranging from as low as 10-40%.

One of its deliverables was to mainstream WASH in the Educational System. Zoe Kanneh, Coordinator for WASH School health division at the Ministry Of Education says her ministry has achieved its goals. "You can't tell me that we don't have wash into the school curriculum.

We do have wash into the school curriculum, simple hygiene wash your hands and they are into the school's curriculum."

Things are completely different here at the G. W. Gibson High school campus just five minutes' drive away from the Ministry of Education.

Z. Abraham Gardour, Principal School says, "No, WASH is not been taught in school as promised by the compact. The curriculum was prepared before that promise as made. When the Education Ministry work on that and find teachers, it will be good. It is important because we want the students to know how to manage water. Not only that, WASH will teach them how to take care of themselves."

One of the reasons why the compact failed is because there was no one to champion of the deliverables says Koromah. "In most cases we realized that the activities were not even started. We realized that we had assigned a particular role to entities that were not established. Imagine us saying that there will be a data management section for the WASH sector and we said it was the responsibility of the WSSC which is not formed." Back at the school Sarta goes back to class. She looks at the blackboard and copies. She says one of the problems for water and sanitation is the pipes. Her principal says the pipes are old and rusted to allow the children to drink from it. "I want to believe that some of these pipes are older than me. I can remember when I was I little boy- I was living seventeen Street; there was an old iron pipe passing right before my father's house and it is still there up to date. That pipe was there even before I was borne," Gardour says.

New Narratives Fellow Tecee Boley, in Collaboration With the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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