15 October 2018

Africa: 'If We Don't Wash Our Hands, It Will Devastate Generations' #GlobalHandwashingDay

Photo: Wellbeing Foundation Africa
Toyin Saraki taking part in hygiene classes aimed at reducing the infections that sicken and kill large numbers of children in poor countries.
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Lagos — Today, on Global Handwashing Day, the focus of the global health community is on the importance of handwashing with soap as a highly effective way to prevent the spread of disease and save lives. The evidence for handwashing is well-known – it can dramatically reduce the risk of diarrhoea and pneumonia, and thwarts the spread of diseases like Ebola. Access to clean water, good sanitation and hygiene is also a significant factor in the prevention of blindness caused trachoma.

Effective education and advocacy for handwashing is part of every successful plan to improve water, sanitation and hygiene conditions – commonly known as 'WASH.' Today therefore provides an opportunity to be a critical friend, to ask difficult questions about WASH standards in our own countries. Are we making sufficient progress towards achieving the WASH Sustainable Development Goals? Is a lack of investment in WASH putting the lives of thousands at risk as the spread of Ebola is made more likely? Are women and infants dying needlessly in labour rooms, with maternal sepsis taking a mother's life at what should be the most joyous time?

When we ask these questions of Nigeria, the answers are deeply troubling. It is not just the current situational analysis which is so bleak, but also the direction of travel and the systematic failures to bring WASH standards up to an appropriate level for our population.

Last year the World Bank published its appropriately-named report "A Wake up Call – Nigeria Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene Poverty Diagnostic."  I met with the water team at the World Bank this summer to discuss and analyse its conclusions, which were devastating. Only 29% of Nigerians have access to improved sanitation, and poor children are about four times more likely to get diarrheal disease than rich children due to poor access to WASH. Is this dire situation being effectively addressed? Well, 15% of completed works on public water infrastructure are considered to be of unsatisfactory quality, and nearly 30% of water points and water schemes fail within their first year of operation. Access to piped water on premises in urban areas has decreased substantially, from a level which was already critical. Across most water-utility indicators, Nigeria underperforms in comparison to African and global averages and needs to invest at least three times more than it does today to achieve the WASH sustainable development goals.

Nigerians, who have to put up with the daily dangers of poor WASH standards, can therefore have little confidence that future generations will be safer than they are. Can they really expect that their children and grandchildren will be able to bring their own children into the world safely, in a clean labour room? That their communities will not be ripped apart by diseases which could have been prevented with decent WASH conditions? WASH is at the heart of Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) and the fact that outbreaks of diseases have been so severe in Nigeria recently – with the WHO commenting that the Lassa  outbreak this year was unprecedented – is no coincidence.

In truth, Nigeria is struggling to maintain its current infrastructure, inadequate as it is for the current population and entirely unfit for the years ahead. Government must lead the way, achieving economies of scale in densely populated areas by providing piped water and not forcing individual families or streets to rely on their own sources. As the World Bank report rightly highlights, this also allows for the proper regulation of groundwater, essential in the fight against pollution. For all of Nigeria, the tripling of current WASH spending is an absolute imperative.

There have been very recent encouraging signs from the Ministry of Water Resources in Nigeria, which is certainly embracing Global Handwashing Day enthusiastically, and in April of this year, the Federal Government declared a state of national WASH emergency, hinged upon a 13-year revitalization strategy. This must be properly funded and implemented across Nigeria.

Today I will be joining Wellbeing Foundation Africa's outreach teams who are implementing our handwashing and WASH PSHE programme across Nigeria, reaching hundreds of children. That action follows our new partnership, announced last month, with Unilever Lifebuoy and Sightsavers. Together we have committed to improve hygiene practices and impact more than 2 million children over the next year. We are doing our part, as we have done for some time – now Nigeria must provide the necessary investment in WASH and honour its recent promises. Failure to do so will devastate generations of Nigerians to come.

Toyin Ojora Saraki is Founder President of Wellbeing Foundation Africa

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