|The only source of water close to Tenavatu Primary school .|
© UNICEF Pacific/2014/Thakkar
In the last two weeks, 18 young children in the Solomon Islands died of dehydration due to diarrhoea. They died before they even had the chance to celebrate their fifth birthday. UNICEF and its partners have been working hard on water, sanitation and hygiene interventions in flood-affected areas, but diarrhoea cases spread in areas not affected by the April floods. While investigations are still going on, the fatalities are likely because of rotavirus, a highly infectious virus that is very dangerous to young children. When their parents or other caregivers are not educated about how to care for them, including taking them to a health care centre immediately, children can quickly dehydrate and die.
It doesn’t help that only 12% of the country has access to proper sanitation facilities and only 67% of this country has access to clean water. Note: clear water does not mean safe water, as I was told today. Water may look clean and be mud-free, but it is unlikely to pass a test confirming it is potable. Lots of people in the Solomon Islands are used to getting their water from rivers and creeks or from dug wells, and while they are usually careful to drink only what is sludge and mud free, they do not realize it is full of invisible bacteria.
UNICEF staff Godwin Kamtukule educating children
of Tenavatu Primary school about hygiene and sanitation.
© UNICEF Pacific/2014/Thakkar
I saw this first hand when I joined my colleague Godwin Kamtukule on a visit to Tenavatu Primary school in the one of the villages close to Honiara. This school has 256 students and eight teachers. Children from five villages in the surrounding area walk to/from school every school day. This school has no drinking water and not a single toilet. There is a stream close-by but the picture says it all. And it doesn’t simply end there. These children come from homes with no toilets, no access to clean, safe water and, on their limited incomes, buying and using soap is not a priority. In fact, their families don’t quite see the problem or even understand it. I suppose you don’t miss what you’ve never had.
But it isn’t easy to ignore the issue considering that diarrhoeal diseases are far too common here. While it sounds all dire and hopeless, here is the thing; it isn’t. In the aftermath of the floods, this school was identified as high priority. UNICEF plans to build eight toilets here – three for boys, three for girls and two for teachers. In addition, the school will receive two rainwater harvesting pipes and storage tanks. Most importantly, the teachers and the students will be educated about potable water, hygiene and sanitation. The hope is that these kids will take the lessons back home and change habits and lifestyles of their families as well. This same project will then be replicated in nine more schools in the region.
The grander aim is that no child - in fact no one at all - dies of preventable causes related to something as basic as water and sanitation. It is too late for the 18 lives lost but it isn’t too late for the many more who are at the brink.
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