A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Around 100 people from 16 households live in Kobuan, a coastal settlement in central Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, earing money from the crops they grow and animals they rear. Working with the local community, we helped bring clean and reliable water and sanitation.
A rusty, makeshift pipe used to feed a trickle of water into the village from the nearest water source, a natural spring, to one family. Some other families used this pipe, but it had become corroded through age and the elements so its water was often dirty and unfit to drink. It often caused illness.
The alternative was for women to spend an hour walking through steep terrain to the natural spring. They made this burdensome journey many times a day, leaving less time to spend educating their children or maintaining the vegetable gardens and animals that provide their income.
Many of them carried 20 liters of water in a single trip, a trip made even more arduous in the wet season when the rains turn the forest paths into cloying mud.
Because water was in such short supply, there wasn’t always enough for washing and cleaning. Clothes, bedding and food rarely got washed – worsening families’ health. And it wasn’t just the lack of water putting people’s health at risk: only two of the 16 households had access to a latrine. Open defecation was the norm.
In this humid environment where hands went unwashed, food was prepared with dirty water and there was no water for cleaning, bacteria thrived.
Oxfam water experts have been working with local community leaders and the villagers themselves to install a gravity-fed water system that allows water from the natural spring to flow directly to the heart of the village, all year round.
This simple solution is providing a reliable supply that frees women from trekking uphill to fetch water, meaning they can spend more time with their families and looking after their gardens and livestock.
Oxfam has built latrines in carefully selected locations around the village, away from where food is prepared and children play. We conducted health and hygiene training to encourage people to adopt new hygiene practices like washing their hands after using the toilet. And we provided the villagers with guidance on how to clean, manage and maintain the new latrines.
Changes for the better
We know from experience that these changes will profoundly improve people’s quality of life. Women no longer have to spend significant amounts of time fetching water. Fresh, clean and reliable water is flowing to where it is needed most.
Well-maintained and strategically placed latrines, combined with a greater awareness of hand washing and hygiene, will result in waterborne illnesses going into decline. Rather than suffering from constant and life-threatening illnesses, villagers will be healthy and able to work and go to school.
Villagers like Alberta Karato, a mother from Kobuan, are already excited about the changes that Oxfam has brought. She says: “Our makeshift water pipe is rusty and I am concerned about the contaminated water ... This project will reduce the hard work we mothers endure not only in getting water but time to do other work properly as well”.