Liberia’s WASH Crisis: Impact of Water, Sanitation & Hygiene
By: Francis W. Nyepon
The lack of safe water, adequate sanitation and proper hygiene has a severe and burdensome impact on the daily lives of Liberians. Nearly 4 million Liberians are ruthlessly affected by these challenges each day with staggering impact on the economy and environment. The lack of safe water, adequate sanitation and proper hygiene is causing a crisis in our country. But, Liberia’s water, sanitation and hygiene, WASH crisis is not due to scarcity. It is due exclusively to the lack of access, effective public policy, political will and determination. In a recent report, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that many Liberians die each year from preventable diseases attributed to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and improper hygiene. Furthermore, UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund affirms the fact that diarrhea related diseases cases stunting among Liberian children because of the huge toll taken on this venerable segment of our population.
Water, sanitation and hygiene are not top priorities in Liberia, even though they are essential for life, health and dignity. WASH impacts the ability of every Liberian to learn, thrive, grow and improve him or herself. It is so very crucial for poverty reduction and livelihood improvements in the country that it stalls well meaning development efforts of the government. The provision of these vital and necessary services is extremely important to Liberia’s development and economic expansion; yet, ‘appropriate’ policies to enhance improved standards of living, mitigate health burden and prevent outbreaks of epidemics, most especially, in peri-urban areas and rural communities have not been put in place. If they have, then they have not impacted the lives of ordinary Liberians over the past decade.
The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, estimate that over 77% of Liberians lack access to safe water, adequate toilet, and proper hygiene; while, 6 out of 10 Liberians practice open defecation due to the lack of adequate toilet facilities. Furthermore, the group states that over 60% of all illnesses in Liberian are caused by or linked to poor water, inadequate sanitation and improper hygiene; further, concluding that over half of all hospital beds in the country are filled by people suffering from diseases related to water, sanitation and hygiene. Additionally, the group says that schoolchildren in Liberia lost an average of 40 school days each year due to diseases related to or caused by the lack of improvements in these critical areas. In fact, it is believed that nearly 3 out of every 5 deaths among children under the age of 5 years are due to diseases related to water, sanitation and hygiene. Likewise, more than half of school-age girls who drop out of school do so because of the absence of a suitable toilet and availability of safe water.
This is a tragedy which shouldn’t be happening in Liberia in 2015, but for countless number of Liberians this adversity is a reality, which for many, will last a lifetime. Throughout Liberia, water, sanitation and hygiene are extremely critical to life. These critical social and health building blocks are most critical to eradicating poverty, improving livelihood, public health, nutrition, education and gender equality. Imagine for a moment the fact that more Liberians have access to a cell phone than they do to a toilet. Isn’t this a shame? Improved water supply in Liberia will reduce diarrhea morbidity by 21%; while improved sanitation facilities will reduce diarrhea morbidity by 37.5%. Just imagine the simple act of washing hands at critical times during the day can reduce the number of diarrheal cases by up to 35%. Also, improvement of drinking-water quality, such as point of use disinfection, could lead to a substantial reduction in episodes of diarrhea.
According to the World Bank, the lack of safe water, adequate sanitation and proper hygiene, account for more than 5% of GDP lost in Liberia every year, The Bank also estimates that for every $1 USD the Liberian Government spent on water, sanitation and hygiene, the country is bound to generate at least $10 USD in increased economic opportunity and productivity. This suggests that attaining widespread utilization of safe drinking water, adequate sanitation facilities and proper hygiene is beneficial to the development, growth and economic expansion of Liberia. These are critical and vital issues needed to propel growth and boost development. Therefore, they cannot be left single-handedly to undermine Liberia’s national efforts to reduce poverty, minimize our health burden, enhance growth and transform our country.
In view of the above, the link between water, sanitation and hygiene needed to stimulate sustainable development in Liberia is clear. Equally, the solution to effectively deal with this menace is also well well-known. Now, therefore, these critical areas are fundamentals for Liberia’s future, and essential to spur genuine transformation in order to enhance and enable tangible growth to improve livelihood. This author believes that because water, sanitation and hygiene are critical and vital prerequisites for economic and social development, it is imperative that community-led approaches be instituted to stimulate and scale up supply.
Over the past decade, the number of Liberians that were forced to defecate in open fields, forests, bushes, near waterways, on beaches, and in vacant lots have substantially increased. The impact of this hidden scandal is devastating to the health and quality of life of every Liberian. As a matter of fact, three quarters of Liberia’s population still engages in open defecation. It is extremely important that this deplorable practice be eradicated and brought completely to an end. But, to accomplish this goal, our government needs to spearhead a social change movement, to spur a new national policy approach to reintroduce a once successful urban program called ‘Community Toilets Initiatives’ where individual communities in urban and peri-urban slums administered public baths and toilets. This proven method of improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene encouraged local communities to take the lead in identifying measures of ending open defecation in respective communities.
Liberia cannot always continue to link growth in the sector squarely on donor funding as a constraint to developing adequate sanitation, water and proper hygiene policies or practices. This author believes that the optimum benefit from safe water and adequate sanitation will only be realized in Liberia when communities, institutions and individuals are made aware of the direct link between proper hygiene practices, poor sanitation, and unsafe water to the spread of diseases, misery and hopelessness. The social impact of unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and improper hygiene practices needs to be lessen throughout the country; especially, their devastating effect on our children and in local markets from Redlight and Dwazon to Harper and Barclayville.
Every Liberian needs to participate in solving our country’s water, sanitation and hygiene problem because they are primary drivers of public health. If our country can secure access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation facilities and proper hygiene, irrespective of class, ethnicity, region, and status; then, a huge battle against environmental degradation and preventable diseases would have been won. Therefore, a national effort needs to be scaled-up in order to ensure that the majority of our people gain access to safe water, adequate sanitation and proper hygiene, which in turn would enhance tangible growth, improved livelihood, education and public health. The government needs to take the lead in scaling-up such initiatives by developing appropriate policies and building the capacity of local people.