Interview with Apollos Nwafor
Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa are two of the world's poorest countries. Both nations are recovering after long-running civil wars which stifled development and exacerbated poverty. In both countries the vast majority of the population - more than 80% - live without adequate sanitation, while nearly a third of people of Liberia and half the people in Sierrra Leone lack access to safe water.
During a recent visit to WaterAid's office in New York Apollos Nwafor, WaterAid's Team Leader for Sierra Leone and Liberia, talked about our new programs there:
Why are water and sanitation so crucial to a country's development?
I think you need to understand that water is life. Everyone needs water to drink every day, no one can survive for more than three days without water. Water and sanitation are central to human development especially, at the rural level.
Gertrude Quayee, 22, collecting unsafe water from a creek near to her house, Jaytoken, River Gee County, Liberia.
Because a lack of water and sanitation services, girls are not able to go to school. Children are not able to have a life. Many of them do not get up to their fifth birthday because of lack of safe water and improved sanitation services, they just die off like that. Women are not able to participate in economic activities because they spend their time fetching water and so they remain poor.
So, water and sanitation are not just about digging holes, it's about saving lives. It’s about giving hope to children. It’s about putting a smile on women's faces. It’s about addressing inequalities in poverty. It’s about ensuring that countries are able to develop and that people have a life and a future.
With such low access to water and sanitation across both coutnries, how do you select the communities that WaterAid works in?
We do a needs assessment, where we look at the reports from the national statistical agencies of both countries to see where the poverty levels are high. We also have discussion with local partners to look for hard-to-reach communities where the need is most and we also try to look at areas where you have high numbers of people living with disabilities. So these are some of the indicators we use in choosing communities.
What are the areas with those needs?
In Liberia we have a lot of communities with those needs. We are not working in all of them because of our limited funding, so for now we work in communities in Maryland County, River G and Grand Crux counties. In Sierra Leone we are working in communities across the Kenema and Pujehun districts, but we are now thinking of expanding into other districts in Sierra Leone and to at least one or two more counties in Liberia.
You walk into a community to open the tap for a newly constructed facility, and you see the joy on the faces of the people, especially the women. The women are the ones who are absolutely excited because they are the ones who suffer most.
What is the first step when you start work in a community?
One thing to note is that we don’t just go there as WaterAid, we go with local NGO partners and the local government technical team, so it’s all of us going together.
We look for the leaders of the communities, and that’s where we start from, with the gatekeepers and those who provide leadership of the communities, so that eases our entry into the community.
We start by introducing ourselves to the communities and sharing with them our vision and our hope, and making them understand how safe water helps them to develop economically and allow more of their children to go to school. We do a community assessment together and they are able to see the links between safe water and sanitation to their public health, to the development of their children, and of course, the economic benefits to women.
What happens next?
Once the assessment has been done, we discuss with the local partners and community members when we need to come in and start with the hygiene promotion, and also to trigger the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), which is an approach that helps people to see the need to stop open defecation, practice safe hygiene, and build their own toilets using local materials.
After that, we discuss with the communities the results of what has happened and what has changed, and then we all agree as to where the water points should be.
Two construction workers constructing parts for protected wells in River Gee County, Liberia.
When we agree on the water points, then we construct the water points, and the community management committee is set up and they agree on what measures they will take to maintain the facilities, with support from WaterAid and the local government. What kind of technologies are used?
We try to look for very simple technologies and pumps that are easy to maintain. Especially for very rural communities we want to ensure that it is easy for spare parts to be found and for operations and management technicians to be trained, so we use what is available. For example, in Sierra Leone most of the pumps being used are India Mark II pumps. But before the war, we were doing gravitational water systems, so we’re also looking at that again.
A block of six ventilated latrines constructed by WaterAid and their local partner in River Gee County, Liberia.
And for the latrines?
For the latrines, we use EcoSan [ecological sanitation or composting] latrines for institutional latrines. We also look at pit toilets with doors wide enough for people with disabilities to go through. We are looking at how we can improve on our facilities to ensure that people living with disabilities and the elderly are able to use them and that they are also safe for children.Who deals with ongoing management and maintenance of the new water and sanitation facilities?
The communities and the local government, through the community management committees. We work with the local governments to set up government technical teams that support these communities to ensure that we maintain these facilities.
Most of the time communities agree that everyone who comes to fetch water from that water point will pay a token fee. The token fee is used to maintain and do the ongoing operation and maintenance of the water point. In some cases, communities agree to contribute their farm produce, which is sold and the proceeds from the sale are used to maintain the water point.How do you promote good hygiene to communities?
We have our hygiene promotion manuals and we train community members in practical training sessions and from there they are also able to train their families and community groups on safe hygiene practices. We also work in schools, where we train the children and have hygiene programs; these children are also able to train their parents on simple things, like washing your hands after using the toilet or washing your hands after eating, ensuring that you’re neat and also ensuring that your fingernails are cut and that you are not carrying germs in your fingers. Simple, simple hygiene practices that can save lives. The children are trained on those things and also share that with their peers.Some of the school trainings look like games – can you tell us about those?
The children are usually very excited because they do role plays and they have clubs where the children come up with innovative ideas on how to pass their messages across. We support children through the thinking process as to what is the best way to share with your mother how to carry out this safe hygiene practice. The children talk about it and think within their existing cultural practices what could work. It’s usually very exciting, the children are very excited and at the end of the school term they act a drama or during special days the club also presents some role play or some demonstration before the entire school. What do you think when you get to see some of the presentations by the children?
It’s exciting – you feel very fulfilled because then you look at it, and you think these children have gone beyond what you have taught them. They are now thinking and they now own it, that’s the beauty. It’s no longer like this is what WaterAid taught us, this is now what they believe. They are practicing it as their own way of life and not just what they were taught.What kind of differences do you see in the communities you have worked in?
When you enter a community that is now free from open defecation, from the entry point you are able to see the change, you feel it in the air. The air is fresh, the compounds are neat. You see that each home has its own toilet and when you talk to the women, they are so excited because they now have their toilets, they don’t have to try to hide or worry about privacy. They now have more time to do other things and their children now have more time to go to school. It’s beautiful.What do women do with that extra time?
Some of the women, for instance those who live in coastal areas, have time to go out to fish and sell their fish. Some of them are able to now go to market and sell their produce and earn money. Some of them also have time to rest, because the women, usually in the rural areas work harder – much harder – so you can imagine the burden of looking for water for them. So the time that is saved can also be used to rest and ensure that they don’t die young, or they don’t fall sick unnecessarily, because it takes a lot of money to access healthcare services, especially in rural areas.What kind of advocacy work does WaterAid do ?
At the community level we gather evidence that we use to advocate for more and better financing for water and sanitation services.
We try and change policies and to influence governments to increase resources to water and sanitation, especially for these communities where access is low. This evidence is also used to engage governments in developing Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), that’s happened very clearly in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where water and sanitation now have a place of priority in their PRSPs and it has reformed national policies.
We have also been using the Sanitation and Water for All partnership to influence policies and advocate for better financing at the international level with institutions like the World Bank, UNICEF and donor governments like USAID. Are policymakers generally receptive to listening to what you have to say?
Well, it takes time, quite a lot of time, for them to be receptive. But the key issue is to make them understand that access to safe water and improved sanitation services contributes to health, contributes to education, contributes to reducing infant mortality, contributes to addressing the challenges of maternal mortality. What are you most proud of in your work with WaterAid?
I would say I’m most proud of the fact that we’re seeing results with this work. You’re putting a lot of effort but the results are far more rewarding. You walk into a community to open the tap for a newly constructed facility, and you see the joy on the faces of the people, especially the women. The women are the ones who are absolutely excited because they are the ones who suffer most.
We are now beginning to see an increase in the number of children who are going to school as a result of safe water and sanitation facilities.
And then, you find the communities being very active and they pledge and do everything to maintain these services. We are so proud of the fact that lives are being transformed, especially the lives of women, it’s so beautiful.