The Water Crisis in Poor Rural Communities

When we think about water, we often picture a glass of clear water or a cartoon-like drawing of a blue lake or river. But, these images are far from reality.  A more accurate picture would show dirt, scary looking bugs and poop.  People living in remote rural areas without the luxury of treated, piped water are often left with little choice but to drink from water sources contaminated with poop.  This month International World Water Day, established by the UN as March 22 back in 1992, reminds us of the magnitude of the problem:

1.1 billion people (one sixth of the world’s population) do not have access to safe drinking water, and 86% of these people live in rural areas (where Nuru’s work is focused).

Water-related diseases, the second biggest killer of children under the age of 5, take the lives of over 5,000 children each day. (WHO, 2004)

Nuru Meets the Demand with WASH Solutions that Meet the Need

World Water Day also reminds us that we are not alone in the fight against water-related diseases. There are many of us who believe that extreme poverty cannot be eradicated without addressing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).  At Nuru, we want to equip families in these remote, rural communities to stop the constant threat of water-related diseases. Examples of how we do this include creating and meeting demand in the community for drinking water disinfection: Nuru community health workers sell WaterGuard and handwashing with soap and water: we assemble and sell affordable handwashing stations/devices and we also sell soap through our healthcare program.  These are effective proven interventions, but stopping poop from polluting water sources, the environment and our bodies in the first place is another important component.

Integrating Sanitation- Starting with What They Know

We are currently developing the sanitation side of our program in order to support families who want to build latrines at their homes (and stop the poop problem). Considering where we might start, sage advice came to mind-

“Start with what they know.”

What might it look like if before diving into new projects or presenting complex ideas that haven’t been previously introduced to a community, we first considered what they might already know about the topic and start there? What if we took the time to discover the existing skills, technology and approaches that already exist in the community before offering them advice about a “better” way?

Thus, we began our sanitation journey by asking our water and sanitation team of 10 staff and 9 volunteers- hardworking men and women who reside in the rural villages amongst our target population, families in extreme poverty- to teach us what they know about building latrines. By doing it.

(I should add that when I say “we” and “us” I’m referring to myself Nicole Scott, water and sanitation program manager and Matt Lee, who I’ve just replaced- Nuru program managers work on 7 month rotations. I had the pleasure of being here with Matt for a month-long transition period. I can’t take credit for this activity- it was Matt’s brainchild. Although he did get to witness some of the latrine construction, I wish he was still here to see the finished product.)

We gave the team a rough budget and 3 basic steps: 1) Dig a hole, 2) Build a foundation/slab, 3) Build a structure using corrugated metal (called “iron sheets” here). That’s it. There are a few handyman types on the team, but this group has no formal training in building latrines.  However, we suspected that they are quite capable of construction projects, judging by their homes, which most families construct themselves.

The team hesitated for a bit, concerned about wasting materials or screwing it up in the beginning, but we told them not to worry, these 2 latrines might never be actually used. This was just practice, mistakes are okay.  It took a bit of convincing, but soon enough everyone jumped in and got to work. They amazed themselves and us with what they were able to accomplish in just 4 working days.

They took turns digging in the hot hot February sun, enthusiastically cheering each other on. The women hauled sand and water for the cement mixing, and the men taught them how to use the saws and hammers. Each member helped in any way they could, and they all weighed in on important decisions- the shape of the hole, where to build the slab (in place or off to the side), the ratio of cement to sand for the concrete mix, etc.

And, my favorite part was when the trash talking began- everything from who has the best cement mix, the fastest construction, the strongest structure, and latrine is going up the fastest to who’s hole could hold the most poop.

You know you’re getting somewhere with sanitation when people can joke around about poop.

Although they were given the same basic guidance, the two teams took very different approaches, which allowed everyone to physically see what works and doesn’t in latrine construction. For example, the team that took careful measurements and chose to use more cement and less and ended up with a sound foundation (concrete slab) and structure (wood frame with corrugated metal walls). What the other team lacked in accuracy, they made up in innovation. They had their eye on a portable design- a slab and structure that you could pick up and move when the hole filled up. Brilliant! However, while transferring the slab from where they built it to the hole, some major cracks surfaced and the team realized that their concrete wasn’t strong enough.

These and the many other lessons learned during this activity are invaluable for us and our team of nationals as we prepare to enhance our knowledge and skills so that we can provide the technical support families need to build latrines at their homes.

Through this exercise the whole team, and especially our local management team here got to experience the wisdom of starting with what they know.  Had we jumped right into training and pushing “better” construction methods, we may have missed some of these valuable learnings:

  • Seeing is believing, and discovering things ourselves tends to be more impactful than being told. We could have told the teams to use a stronger concrete mix (like the instructions on the cement bag recommend), but they learned for themselves that their less expensive mix might not have what it takes and now are very motivated to learn about what might work better- they are trying to convince us to give them another day and a bit more materials to reinforce their weak slab with stronger concrete.
  • Acknowledging upfront that there are local skills and methodology helped foster mutual respect and instill confidence, which has provided us with ripe conditions for future training. Our staff members now see their own skills gaps for themselves, but maybe more importantly they recognize the skills they do have and that exist within their fellow villagers. When we first began, they felt unqualified to build a latrine. “We can’t. We need a fundi (craftsman)”, they told us. But, they are really proud of the latrine they built themselves, and they see how far they can get by working together and leveraging the unique contributions of the team members. And they also have a healthy humility for what they don’t know.
  • Having our team practice building latrines before we begin training on the topic gave us hints about the latent demand in the community. Our innovative team (that attempted to build their slab and structure off-site) showed us that there might be demand for portable latrines like the Arbor Loo or the Fossa Alterna, which are advocated by organizations like Water for People (a great resource for practical information about sanitation solutions).

The next step for us is to debrief this activity with our team- talk about what worked and what didn’t and how we might improve. And, we hope to follow this up with some formal training. Our partner CAWST offers sanitation training that has classroom and practical components, including training how to build low cost slabs like the SanPlat , which boasts a “2 dollar latrine”.  I’m intrigued, as the slabs our team constructed involved extensive labor and materials which cost about $20, about 25% of the total cost of the latrine.

Sharing Sanitation Resources

We’d love to hear from you! What is your experience with the SanPlat? Are there other affordable latrine slabs out there that are working well? Have you built Arbor Loo or the Fossa Alterna latrines? Are there other affordable latrine designs you recommend? Tips on good rural sanitation resources or impact studies are also welcome.  The IRC’s Sanitation Updates, WSP’s CLTS and Sanitation Marketing: Global Scaling Up Rural Sanitation Project, and the CLTS webpage have been very helpful for us.