Yet all of these dramatic improvements can be put at risk if proper sanitation is not present.
Potentially deadly diseases, eradicated at the original water source by protecting it from contamination from people and animals, can show up in the community, not at the water tap, but everywhere else because of uninformed sanitation practices.
At first glance you’d think it would be easy for people to change these practices. But just think of how uncomfortable it can be for you to use a public washroom stall in a shopping mall and you can get a sense of how challenging it can be to encourage community members to use walled pit latrines, rather than type of personal privacy they’re used to in the great outdoors.
Walled pit latrines – our equivalent would be a toilet in a bathroom – make it possible to safely manage human waste.
Without proper sanitation facilities and practices, the gains made by having access to clean water can be quickly reduced or erased.
Next to clean water, proper sanitation, or the use of pit latrines, is one of the biggest factors in improving the health of families in rural communities.
It’s not the most glamorous aspect of what we do in communities in Ethiopia, but it’s incredibly important. Why? Not only is it awkward and smelly to accidentally walk into something another person has left behind, open defecation is also a huge public health challenge. It can expose people to diseases such as polio, giardiasis, hepatitis A and infectious diarrhoea.
Families in Koshale are learning about the importance of proper personal sanitation, including hand-washing, and the construction and use of walled pit latrines. Ethiopian staff visit with communities and individual families, teaching them how to prevent the occurrence or spread of diseases related to improper sanitation practices that can harm and kill.
In Koshale, reducing open defecation is not about spending money to build fancy toilets like we would expect in a public place or our homes. It’s about changing behaviours. It is not always easy to change the way you have been doing something all your life, but staff are persistent in helping families understand why it is important and how it is done.
Something we take for granted, and frankly many of us still do not do, like washing our hands before preparing food, or after using the washroom, are concepts that families in Koshale have never been exposed to.
But once families learn about the importance of proper sanitation, and know what to do, they exchange their old habits for healthier habits, construct their owned walled pit latrines, keep them clean, and even create small washing stations just outside the latrine.
Now, instead of feeling ashamed and embarrassed about bodily functions and trying to search for a private place in the great outdoors every time they need to relieve themselves, mothers, fathers and children use the latrines.
When we visit families they often proudly show off their latrines. And we are so honoured to help them show off because we can see evidence of how the change they have made has positively impacted their health!