Working in the World Bank-administered Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), I often ghostwrite opinion articles and web content about sanitation and water challenges in developing countries. Today is a little bit different. You see, today is Blog Action Day 2010, which this year is dedicated to creating global discussions about water. Not only that, but today is also Global Handwashing Day, which aims to raise awareness about how the simple act of washing hands with soap can stop the spread of disease, improving health and saving lives. Add the fact that today is TGIF (Thank God It's Friday), and you have the recipe to render this ghostwriter corporeal again.
Though I myself am not a water and sanitation expert, I would like to bring to the global discussion three points of knowledge that I have come across in working with such experts, which can be used by academics, civil society organizations (CSOs), water utilities, and others in East Asia and the Pacific, and around the world to make a difference.
First, water is one of the most affected when it comes to climate change impacts. We’re talking more frequent and intense rain-, tidal, and wave events, coastal and flash floods, droughts, and storms. All of these affect the ability of water utilities to provide clean water to those lucky enough to have coverage. And developing countries are first in line of fire. Many utilities are already taking action to adapt to the impacts from changes in the Earth’s climate. Many more can study these actions for lessons that might be applicable to their situation. Check out Climate Change and Urban Water Utilities: Challenges & Opportunities to see what China, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and other countries are doing.
Second, water’s younger cousin, sanitation, is still far from all grown up. It doesn’t have its own Blog Action Day (yet) and does not garner the same global attention and resources as water. Depending on the place and time, talking about it at all can contradict social etiquette, for now. But the fact is that 2.6 billion people do not have access to a toilet, which spreads disease, especially among children under five, and leaves millions of them dead each year.
More and more Governments are working with CSOs and international partners using new knowledge to bring sustainable sanitation to these people. Strong partnerships, community-led programs, behavior change communications, and sanitation marketing (among others) are key success factors for improving access to sanitation in rural areas. Have a look at this presentation (pdf file) about sanitation in Indonesia, or study what works at www.wsp.org/scalingupsanitation .
Finally, hygiene is also often depicted as a more obscure relative of water. Washing hands with soap at critical times drastically reduces diarrheal rates and improves health and chances of survival in the developing world, but is not prevalent in poor countries. Large-scale promotion of handwashing behavior change is a challenge, but the knowledge exists that can begin to change that.
For example, in Vietnam, one project (pdf file) found that despite the fact that households had some form of soap, they were still only rinsing hands with water. It turns out that convenient and easy access to both water and soap at critical times is a key behavioral determinant of handwashing with soap among women and children. If a busy mother needs to look for soap before preparing a meal, or a child does not have easy access to water and soap after using the latrine, the probability of handwashing with soap actually taking place is lower. This has been confirmed in other countries where handwashing with soap is being implemented, namely Peru and Senegal, where handwashing with soap is positively correlated with having a designated place for family members to wash their hands. Check out this site to see more knowledge about handwashing.
Blog Action Day, Global Handwashing Day, and others like it can only succeed with everyone working together to take what we’ve learned and put it to use on the ground. It’s through this type of collaboration that we make things better.