When Water Kills: Committing to a Clean Solution in Africa
Water Nearly half a million babies die every year from dirty water and the simple lack of soap.
It started about two weeks after he was born: black spots began to cover his body, he refused to eat, he refused to drink. Twenty-four hours after the symptoms began, 15 day-old Allaman Sidiqi passed away.
Without a medical opinion, it’s hard to say what killed Fatoumata Djarra’s tiny son. What we do know is that his symptoms were consistent with sepsis from an infection that might have been easily prevented with clean water and good hygiene.
Statistics show that babies born in Sub-Saharan Africa are 30 times more likely to contract an infection during their first month than babies born in the developed world.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, 46 percent of hospitals don’t have clean water, and fewer still have toilets or hand washing stations. Fatoumata didn’t know it at the time, but as a mother in Mali, she had a one in 17 chance of losing a newborn baby to sepsis during her lifetime.
Water is the issue
Like many clinics there, the main water source at the one where Allaman was born is a traditional well, open to contamination from the animals that defecate nearby and the small animals that fall in and drown. It’s water that can kill you.
"Across Sub-Saharan Africa, 46 percent of hospitals don’t have clean water, and fewer still have toilets or hand washing stations."
The ‘better’ water option is a dated pump standing on the other side of the village, a 15-minute walk from the clinic. It’s here that women who are in labor send their family to collect buckets of water that are used for the birth. The community considers this water safe to drink yet stomach complaints run rampant, especially among pregnant women who come to the health clinic for prenatal care.
But it’s not just the water that’s lacking. Simple yet life-saving hygiene practices like hand washing with soap are not yet common in Fatoumata’s village of Diatoula, just a few miles outside of the capital city of Bamako. During a visit just two months after Mali was declared Ebola-free, not a single bar of soap could be seen in the village—a solitary hand washing station outside the school had water, but no soap.
Nearby, at the small three-room clinic where Fatoumata gave birth, the head nurse tells staff from the international nonprofit WaterAid that soap is only purchased on occasion. Local tradition holds that washing hands too often washes away your protection from danger, and money for soap—like money for everything else—is hard to come by.
Our chance for change
Suffice it to say, there is a huge information gap that needs closing. Millions of lives could be saved simply by making sure that people have access to three basic ‘must-haves’: clean water, toilets and good hygiene.
That’s why the new Global Goals being championed by world leaders from across the globe at the United Nations in New York this month are so exciting. The Sustainable Development Goals represent the most ambitious plan the world has ever seen to end extreme poverty and they include a commitment to ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to clean drinking water, toilets and basic hygiene such as hand washing with soap.
Never before has there been a better time for government leaders to commit to providing clean water, toilets and hand washing facilities in health care centers, and to measuring progress so we know what’s working. If we succeed in linking up these three basic elements in the way we know that we can, entire villages will be healthier, children will be able to attend and stay in school and more babies like Fatoumata’s newborn son will be spared from dying of diseases we know how to prevent.