Friday, November 11, 2016

Flushing away health risks

By Sopharo Oum

Man Chanthou, 19, stands next to a newly constructed borehole that provides clean water for
pre-school children in Kouk village, Rattanakiri province.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Oum

Rattanakiri Province, Cambodia, October 2016 – A sanitation awareness initiative taking place in north eastern Cambodia is providing positive results in terms of increased hygiene, disease prevention and improved safety standards.

Sanitation is a key factor affecting children’s nutrition and health status. Progress has been made in recent years in reducing the number of people practicing open defecation in the country. In 1990, 89 per cent of Cambodians did not use toilets. By 2015, the rate had gone down to 47 per cent. However, despite this progress, the rates of people without access to improved sanitation remain relatively high in Cambodia compared to other countries in the region. The number of children who are stunted, or too short for their age, is also high at 32 per cent, or one in three children.

Lack of proper sanitation facilities causes contamination of food and water supplies which transmits the diarrhoea-related illnesses that contribute to malnutrition.

But communities in Rattanakiri Province are now taking their destiny into their own hands and securing a safer future for forthcoming generations through the adoption of innovative integrated water, sanitation and hygiene activities.

They are being supported by UNICEF and the Provincial Department of Rural Development (PDRD) who are collectively promoting behavioural change toward increased access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in both communities and schools.

Nineteen-year-old pre-school teacher Man Chanthou has been teaching at the Village Hall School in Kouk village in the Ochum district of Rattanakiri province for the past three years. She says that up until recently, the school had no toilets, handwashing facilities, or clean water sources.

She observes that there were many cases of diarrhoea among pre-school children and this was attributed to the lack of hygienic sanitation facilities. This caused many pupils to miss school, fall behind in their learning and negatively impact on their future success.

As a clean school environment is the starting point for a better future for the young, it is significant that the WASH initiative has provided the first signs of success in a local school where fewer children have been absent because of diarrhoea-related illnesses.

Khet Kouch, 22, and his wife Hem Sok are pictured next to their newly constructed latrine 
at their home in Kouk village, Rattanakiri province.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Oum

“This year, I am very happy because everybody in the class will be able to access a toilet and water sources. I will teach my students to use a toilet, about water filters and handwashing practice,” Chanthou says.

Despite an intensive day that starts at 5am with food preparation for her family, teaching pre-school children from 7-9am, working with her husband on their farm all afternoon, followed by domestic chores back at home in the evening, Chanthou is very keen to help the local community.

When asked about the things she wants to see change the most in her locality she said: “I want children in the village to have access to sufficient facilities for education and I want pre-school children to start their education early in order to have basic knowledge prior to primary school.”

Awareness about the benefits of improved sanitation is also being spread among the wider community. Khet Kouch, 22, who lives with his wife Hem Sok in Kouk village bought their first house in April 2015, following their wedding.

As there was no toilet in the house, the family had to openly defecate in nearby bushes. With greater knowledge about the health risks through the WASH campaign supported by UNICEF and a desire for a better quality of life, the family decided to build their own latrine in May 2016.

Kouch said: “I have soap to wash my hands after using the latrine and before handling food.”

He said that in the future, he wants to see everybody in the village have access to latrines and safe drinking water. He also expressed hope that the village would get its own primary school as they are currently without this essential facility.

The movement to improve local sanitation is also being helped by the involvement of Keo Chorn, the headman of the Kouk village community. Thirty-three year-old Chorn attends various meetings about village development activities, including promoting access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.

He said that the construction of domestic toilets would protect villagers from potentially fatal snake bites and poisonous insects which they are at risk of during open defecation.

Private toilets would also improve the safety of vulnerable people, especially females and give residents more dignity.  

This initiative supports the Cambodian government’s ‘National Action Plan for Rural Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene 2014-2018’. UNICEF also works with NGO partners, such as Plan International and Media ONE, to support the PDRD with expertise and capacity building.

As Cambodia celebrates the National Sanitation Day on 12 November, this is an appropriate time to take stock of the water and sanitation situation and contemplate about the children in Cambodia whose futures are compromised by poor sanitation and related nutrition problems.

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