Whereas most West African countries get their water from rivers and streams, in The Gambia many people use boreholes or wells.
Having access to these water sources, and sanitation facilities, is crucial for public health, since other water sources often carry pollutants. And in the Greater Banjul area national and international organizations, such as UNICEF and Action Aid, and the Gambian government have teamed up to tackle the issue of access to water.
Progress is being made. Although most of the United Nations Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be met in The Gambia, evidence shows that the goal of providing access to clean water is on track.
To reach the MDG in the next two years, The Gambia needs to increase sanitation coverage from 70 percent to 80 percent in urban areas like Banjul at a cost of US $26 million per year.
However, the government does not have the total funding capacity for this and seeks input from donors, which is where organizations like UNICEF and Action Aid come in. These organizations work in cities like Banjul to build communal water pumping stations, and if it weren’t for them families say they don’t know where they would get water.
Citizens of Banjul’s urban areas often get their water from open ditches, which is not hygienic. Water that comes out of taps is relatively clean, but few homes have running water. As such, boreholes and pumping stations are being constructed in various communities.
The borehole project gives citizens access to clean water in central locations in the city, which will promote better health, especially for children who are more susceptible to illness.
Education is key
Once the taps and pumping stations are built the second step is education about how to use the taps and proper sanitation and healthy practices. The health and education teams representing the NGOs target women, who serve as community ambassadors, because they are most likely to pass on this knowledge to children who can then teach one another.
NGO workers put together skits, dramas and songs about the benefits of clean water for better health, and perform for women’s groups, explained Mariama Lahai, a community worker with Action Aid. These performances teach basic practices such as using soap to wash hands after using the toilet, and before and after eating food.
Need for more toilets
A major challenge to sanitation in Gambia is that only 23 percent of households have access to toilets, according to available statistics. Instead some families use self- made huts with holes in the ground behind their homes, while others use the gutters out-front of their homes. This can create problems for food contamination.
Most women keep their children with them as they cook, and when they turn their backs the children may defecate on the ground. The feces can be picked up by chickens, which spread it into food and collected water, contaminating it and spreading disease.
It is thus important to teach children not to use the washroom by the food prep area – a message that is sometimes incorporated into educational skits, explains Lahai.
To help improve access to proper toilets, the World Health Organization and the Gambian government are working together to build bathrooms behind homes, away from water sources and food preparation areas. The aim is to provide 224,000 more people with access to water and basic sanitation facilities by 2015.
While there is much more that needs to be done for water provision in Gambia, the NGO community, private sector, and Gambian government seem to be making strides in the right direction for improving access to clean and safe water in the country.
This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.
Main image: With no running tap water a women’s cooperative relies on collecting water from the well multiple times during the day. Courtesy Emily Smith.
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