The importance of WASH facilities in a pandemic

The world we knew before March has been irrevocably changed by the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Now endemic in many countries across the world, the coronavirus has brought into sharp focus the necessity of well-functioning public health systems and adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities (WASH) facilities. This is true in Kenya, and across most of Africa.  

Stark realities in Kenya  

From March onwards, the Kenyan state, like most governments across the world, has encouraged a regime of social distancing, economic lockdown, and thorough handwashing. But, for many, adhering to these measures has been an impossibility. In the informal settlements of the major cities of Kenya – Mombasa and Nairobi – crowded conditions have made practising social distancing very difficult, while scant access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities (WASH) in the pandemic  has restricted the ability of people to cleanse hands and disinfect surfaces. Well over half of Kenya’s 47.5 million people live in these informal settlements, without adequate water, sanitation and health care. 

The importance of water for handwashing 

Handwashing is an essential measure in preventing the proliferation and spread of coronavirus. A study by University College London from earlier this year found that washing one’s hands 6-10 times a day leads to a lower infection rate. The lead author of the study, Ellen Fragaszy, said, “something as simple as washing our hands regularly can help us to keep the infection rate low and reduce transmissions”. ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ is the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 6, but its realisation in Kenya has been lacking.  

WASH provision in Kenya  

According to a study by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Kenyan government currently allocates 1.4% of the national budget to WASH facilities, with 90% of that amount devoted to investment in water infrastructure projects. However, the majority of these projects have yet to be completed. Choices have been made by the government, but real material and resource gains have failed to materialise. The same study by the OHCHR found that, in the driest months, as many as 55% of the respondents rely on private water suppliers, while only 42% use the state-regulated system.  

Setting new precedents  

It is important to stress that inadequate WASH provision is far from an inevitability. At African Development Choices, we believe that, through better management of public resources, communities can achieve significant and enduring change. By setting new precedents for efficiency, accountability and transparency, the international community, the Kenyan national government and local communities can make more targeted and responsible decisions. In fact, the importance of setting such precedents has been vindicated in recent months. The UN Country Team, in order to help with the COVID-19 crisis, set precedents and stressed the importance of adequate WASH facilities in the midst of an epidemic. For example, the team helped install 500 handwashing stations in Nairobi8.  

Raising expectations 

We also believe that, through raising expectations, citizens can begin to demand more from their leaders and be more informed about the importance of adequate water and sanitary facilities. If communities can envisage a more positive future, they will work to help make it a reality.  

Raising expectations requires raising awareness and providing support. Shockingly, only 55% of respondents in the OHCHR study were aware that access to water was a human right, while only 36% were unaware that the Kenyan state had the duty to provide water. Communities across Kenya, during the pandemic and beyond, need to be able to expect a future that is better than the present. Kenyan citizens need to be able to recognise that suitable access to WASH facilities is a right, not a privilege.  

Empowering communities 

It is critical that communities are empowered to make more informed choices about the management of public resources in their areas. Fundamentally, local communities have a stronger knowledge of their own needs and priorities than anyone else. Communities need access to safe water for drinking and sanitation, and so the need for projects like ADC’s Nyansakia primary school initiative has never been clearer. ADC aims to raise £50,000 to build new toilets and a water borehole here. Community mobilisation is, and will continue to be, central in aiding its completion.   

The necessity of long-term thinking  

Governments must be prepared to accept that the COVID-19 pandemic, until a vaccine is found, is here to stay. It is important that national leaders in Kenya, and leaders worldwide, take a long-term view of the crisis. The pandemic will eventually pass, but we must consider that the problems with WASH provision in Kenya will invariably endure if significant action is not taken. A fixation on the arrival of a vaccine may unnecessarily restrict our thinking. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to have been an important moment of reckoning for the world; a moment where we understood that a planet in which everyone has access to essential services is a much better one than one that does not.  

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