By Joel Ogwang
IT is a small but critical aspect of hygiene that could slowly lead you to your grave. Yet, for most Ugandans, asking one to wash hands upon shaking hands with others and or visiting latrines/ toilets is demeaning, if not, insulting.
Right from the family, through to schools, universities and to work places, Ugandans are, consciously or otherwise, resistant to hand washing, or is it?
“It (hand-washing) is something you don’t have to be told to do,” says Daoud Mukama Mukungu, a public health specialist at the water and environment ministry. “It is one vaccine against most diseases, but many Ugandans avoid it.”
Policies and MDG 7C
In a bid to ensure more Ugandans access safe and clean water, policies, including the National Gender Policy, 1997, the National Health Policy, 1999, the Constitution, 1995, the Environment Act, the Local Government Act and Water Resource Regulation, 1998, have been enacted.
However, access to clean and safe water is still elusive even with a government commitment to ensure 77% of the rural population and 100% of urban population have full access to this precious resource by 2015. This target has been modified to ensure clean and safe water for all Ugandans.
Access to safe and clean drinking water is also denoted in Target 7C of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that seeks to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
The UN, however, notes that whilst the world is on track to meet the target to meet the drinking water target, a lot remains to be done in some regions, with accelerated and targeted efforts needed to bring drinking water to all households.
The safe water supply, too, remains a challenge in most parts of the world, with half of the population of developing regions without sanitation.
Two years to 2015, however, all signs show that Uganda may not beat this target. For example, as 2012 went to bed, only 69% of the urban population access clean and safe water (57% for small towns and 77% for large towns) whilst access to rural water supply stands at 64%.
Worst still, is the fact that only 28% of Ugandans have access to hand washing facilities, meaning most Ugandans are at risk of suffering from water-borne diseases including, but not limited to; diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid and dysentery, among others.
According to Elizabeth Kukunda Bacwayo, an associate professor in the faculty of social sciences at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, only 51% of Ugandans have access to public taps provided by government agencies whilst only 1.5% access public taps in rural areas.
As well, only 8% of urban areas have access to piped sewerage, with 92% using on-site system latrines.
“Water contamination is high,” notes Bacwayo. “I lived in Australia and I got water from the tap and drunk. In Uganda, you still have to boil pipe water, meaning it is not clean and safe!”
Increase in overheads due to increasing number of districts, limited resources, cheaper technology and poor water harvesting techniques, are responsible for poor safe water coverage.
As well, water supply in homes is a reserve of children and women in most Ugandan homes. On average, children and women spend a minimum of 30 minutes in trekking two kilometres to the nearest water source in Uganda.
“This weakens their spines at early age and exposes them to risks of sexual harassment,” says Zac Mulawa, a researcher. “There is need to bring water closer to children and women.”
Heads are meant for thinking, notes Mukungu. “But it is in Uganda where women misuse their heads by using them to carry water,” he says.
“It is also in Uganda where, after it stops raining, women pick jerry cans to go and fetch water from wells, instead of harvesting the rain-water!”
Nicholas Ssenyonjo, the Uganda Environmental Education Foundation (UEEF) chief, noted that with all her endowments, poverty and poor sanitation shouldn’t afflict Uganda.
“We have a lot of water that even floods,” he says. “It is ironical that we cant utilise this water in during dry-seasons that we have droughts!”
Water-borne deaths on the increase
In Uganda, 400 people die daily from various water-borne infections including diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera, typhoid, Ebola and Marburg fever, says Sarah Opendi, the primary health care state minister.
Most invisible killer diseases, she notes, are due to poor hygiene, adding that this could be prevented if people developed a culture of washing hands.
However, the government has embarked on a hand hygiene campaign in all health centers and public places countrywide to curtail the deaths.
“We are going to enforce a hand hygiene campaign to make sure all our people develop a culture of washing their hands after every activity,” she says.
“We are going to provide alcohol hand rub sanitizers in our hospitals to protect our health workers and patients.”
The choice to start with health centers was because they are full of organisms that cause infections because many people visit them.
Universities want more government investment
Due to the high risks associated with using unclean water, dons from four universities; McMaster, University of Waterloo, the United Nations University Institute of Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) and the Uganda Christian University (UCU) have urged the Ugandan government to invest in safe and clean water.
During their conference at UCU main campus in Mukono recently, they also called for environmental protection.
“In Canada, rain water is harvested but, while it doesn’t conform to health standards, is used for hand-washing and flashing toilets, reducing water needs.” says Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace, the UNU-INWEH programme officer.
“This could also help Uganda. More sensitisation and provision of subsidised tanks would also help in clean water storage.”
Bacwayo called for a multi-disciplinary and participatory approach to fast-track supply and provision of safe water.
“The only time men go to boreholes is at the commissioning!” she says. “This shouldn’t be the case. Maintaining wells should be a collective responsibility for which men whould be a part of.”
Technology alone, says Dr. Jean Chamberain, the Save the Mothers executive director, will not solve Uganda’s water needs, especially water management. “All people should get involved. Prosperity will not come to Uganda unless everyone access clean water.”