Joy Ruwodo is the Director of Public Affairs (Africa Region) at the END Fund – the only private philanthropic initiative dedicated to ending the five most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). NTDs are a group of parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases – such as river blindness and intestinal worms – that affect over 1.7 billion people worldwide (including 1 billion children). These diseases are disabling and debilitating and cause early death, if left untreated.
How did Africa get here?
How is it possible that in the year 2020, the average girl/woman in rural Africa still walks six kilometers daily to haul 40 pounds of water? If it were not for the fact that I am African and have on many occasions experienced this same fate when visiting family in our rural homestead, I would think that such a statistic was fictitious. Unfortunately, the harsh global reality is that women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours hauling water every day. Right now, with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, hand washing is a global directive to keep our communities safe but people in Africa don’t have regular access to soap for hand washing.
If Africa’s development is the topmost priority, investments in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) systems are crucial to the continent’s advancement. With a global pandemic that has no end in sight, an investment in WASH is crucial for tackling diseases such as COVID-19, communicable diseases, and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). When these diseases are tackled through effective treatment and WASH, the African society becomes more equitable and our children/youth can have a brighter future. Our future leaders of tomorrow do not have to miss out on school because of intestinal worms and they are well-equipped to become great entrepreneurs and innovators of their time.
WASH is an important tool that must be used in ameliorating the quality of life for Africans as well as in strengthening the continent’s health systems. WASH services include the quality and availability of clean water, good and effectively managed sanitation facilities, and the availability of soap and water for handwashing. WASH services are not only essential to facilitating daily life but they can also prevent one’s likelihood of getting certain diseases. For example, in Rwanda, 49% of households that identify a water source have to spend at least 30 minutes on a round trip to fetch the water needed for their families. In Ethiopia, 18% of households do not have access to a water source that is within thirty minutes of where they live. Therefore, the mere identification of a source of water does not make marginalized groups of people exempt from communicable diseases since an estimated 60-80% of communicable diseases are attributed to limited access to WASH facilities. On the other hand, the burden of neglected tropical diseases (intestinal worms, trachoma, and schistosomiasis) can be alleviated through stronger WASH programs. Improved WASH conditions can reduce the burden of trachoma by 27% and sanitation alone can reduce schistosomiasis by as much as 77%. Good water management is also important for combating lymphatic filariasis since it prevents mosquitoes from using puddles as breeding sites. Thus, there is a need to improve water and sanitation services in order to give everyone an equal chance at reaching their full potential.
Identifying changemakers with power and influence
Investing in WASH does not have to be daunting. It can simply begin with a robust national mapping of what the needs of vulnerable communities are and which actors are essential for bringing about change. Mapping stakeholders on the regional and national level enables champions to be identified and mobilized effectively. As a result, there is a diversity of expertise that emerges in terms of how people see a solution to a problem as well as the strategies being proposed to solve these adaptive challenges. Effective stakeholder mapping alongside a stakeholder mobilization plan leads to stronger national policies/standards and also creates a pathway for improving the quality of life for marginalized groups of people such as women and children.
Creating the Africa of tomorrow starts today
Strengthening WASH programs/services facilitates the treatment of NTDs, which in turn improves school attendance. Economic research has shown that in a country like Kenya, one year of schooling was gained for every $4 invested in school mass drug administration programs. Investments in WASH should be viewed as non-negotiable if we are to improve the future of children across the continent. By 2055, Africa is predicted to have a total population of 1 billion children – the largest among all the continents. By following through on these attainable measures, school absenteeism related to intestinal worms reduces by 25% and the future leaders of tomorrow are exposed to a world full of the greatest career possibilities. The potential human toll COVID-19 may have on the African continent is still unknown. What we do know is that Africa would generate long term gains through a renewed focus on WASH – especially at a time like this. If that is not compelling enough, we are creating the tomorrow that we envisage for the children of Africa. Invest in their future!
Click here to learn more about the END Fund, and how you can support their COVID-19 Response Fund.