KATSINA STATE, Nigeria (July 31, 2012) — Nigeria has a vast coastline and river tributaries that irrigate the south, yet insufficient access to clean water contributes to millions of deaths every year. One in seven children will die in Nigeria before they reach the age of five, many of them from waterborne illnesses.
At Lafiyaro Primary School in Katsina State, children are taught that water should help to prevent disease, not be the cause of it. Hygiene and hand-washing are a major part of the curriculum. Since August of last year, the school has been the focus of a project, sponsored by UNICEF as well as British and Nigerian funding, which has become a model for good practices across three neighboring communities.
The water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project provided a water pump and clean latrines at the school and also nurtured a culture of cleanliness.
“It’s not just about providing facilities at school,” explained UNICEF WASH Specialist Theresa Pamma. “It’s also about equipping children with the right information enabling them to make informed decisions. We are looking at washing of hands at the critical moments”
Thirteen-year-old Nana has become something of an ambassador for the WASH project. She explained that poor hand-washing practices before preparing food and after going to the toilet “expose us children to dangerous diseases like cholera.” On a tour of the school, she pointed out strategic sites, among them huge vats of water and red plastic kettles for students to wash their hands.
In the classroom, Nana’s teacher energetically bounced in front of a blackboard, rubbing his hands to demonstrate the importance of good hand hygiene. He also encouraged the schoolchildren to abstain from relieving themselves in the school fields, pointing to the freshly installed latrines.
“This is a defecation-free zone,” Pamma announced proudly. It may not be the stuff of polite conversation, but it is an important milestone in a community where bathroom facilities have long been absent.
A mile away at her family’s home, Nana’s mother Hawa beamed proudly at her daughter. “Since Nana started learning about hygiene at school, our lives as a family have improved because she is teaching us as well. I’ve noticed my children are getting sick less often.”
As if to underscore the point, Nana grabbed the hands of her younger sister and gave them a good scrub with soap and water.
In many parts of northern Nigeria, the terrain makes access to water difficult. In Yandaki Village, home to 5,000 people, the water table is so low that sinking a borehole is not a viable option. As a result, the wealthier villagers purchase water in black plastic tanks delivered by the government, while the vast majority of residents rely on the muddy well several miles away for their water supply.
Ahmed Mohammed, the chairman of the local water and sanitation committee, said that he can spend 900 nira a day (more than $5.60) purchasing water for his family. “But what about the sick and the elderly?… They can’t afford that, and so we need a more reliable solution,” he said. The community is now lobbying the government to pipe in water from adjacent villages, but in the meantime UNICEF and the local government are helping to provide aluminium sulphate tablets to treat the water.
According to a joint report of UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), 42% of the population in Nigeria has no access to improved drinking water, and a staggering 85% of the population does not treat their water.
Nigeria is under pressure to reduce its high infant mortality rate, which is exacerbated by the poor water supply. Improving water and sanitation access is therefore increasingly being seen as a priority issue necessary to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.