Water is one of our most basic needs, and in the midst of a pandemic, access to clean water, soap and handwashing facilities provide the first line of defence against COVID-19. These things are a lifeline to us all.
But whilst we take it for granted that we can simply turn on the tap to get clean water, and easily grab a bar of soap, for children in the village of Kerewan Sitokoto, one of the poorest and most remote parts of Gambia, this is just not an option.
In a community already battered by extreme poverty, vulnerable to climate change, crippling droughts and seasonal flooding, people are desperate for clean water. Over 600 people, the majority of whom are children, get all their water from one shallow communal well with a rope-bucket-pulley system.
During the dry season, or when the well dries up, the community fetches water from a nearby stream. Both sources are contaminated with faeces, bacteria, parasites, sewage and animal waste. What is more, hand washing facilities are non-existent, soap is a luxury few can afford, and the benefits of good hygiene are not understood.
This situation is having a major impact on the health and well-being of all the villagers, the children in particular. The water they drink transmits diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and polio, and contributes to dehydration and stunting, and is a contributing factor in the deaths of many.
Time spent fetching water accounts for the majority of all school absences and prevents parents from working, limiting their chances of generating much needed income. The people of Kerwan Sitokoto have almost no way to protect themselves from COVID-19, they simply do not have the same tools that we all take for granted.
This is why we are raising much needed funds to provide all-year-round clean water, hand washing facilities and to run hygiene awareness campaigns to promote the habit of hand washing with soap.
We have successfully worked with this community before when in 2019 we provided much needed educational supplies to the school and sponsored school meals. Since then we have been working with the local community to identify local needs and priorities, which is why we are working towards providing the school and the community with a reliable clean source of water, hand washing facilities and courses to promote good hygiene practices. All of these measure will be a lifeline to the community and will benefit the people in many ways:
Education: children will be freed from collecting water and school absences due to sickness will be reduced. This will enable many more children to access education for the first time and many more to continue their schooling, greatly improving their chances in life.
Empowerment: girls and women are responsible for retrieving water in the majority of households. The hours spent each day travelling to, and waiting at, water points will be saved, meaning more girls can attend school. It will also allow women work, helping them lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Food security: easy and reliable access to water will enable families to grow crops all year round and the Kerewan Sitokoto School will finally have a vegetable garden to improve children’s diets.
COVID-19: families will be better equipped to deal with the pandemic and reduce the spread of the virus.
Health: even though people in the village know the water is polluted and it may cause disease they have no other choice but to drink it. With access to clean water and washing facilities incidence of illness will be reduced and hundreds of families given the chance for a healthier life.
Poverty: lack of access to consistent sources of clean water, and the lack of effective hygiene practices, is an insurmountable obstacle to breaking the cycle of poverty, as families cannot grow food, build houses, stay healthy or go to school and work. The WHO shows that 15 for every $1 invested in water and sanitation there is an economic return of between $3 and $34!