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Gambia: Sanitation and Hygiene - Fundamental Elements of Livelihood

SAFFIATOU COLLEY, All Africa, 11 March 2014


As the popular saying goes a healthy nation is a wealthy nation, for sanitation and hygiene play a rudimentary role in the development of any community. In this edition of Environment, we want to bring to your attention the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene to humans.


However, the edition also seeks to outline the dire consequences attached to the lack of these fundamental elements in human survival and on the other hand enlighten our readers about certain human activity that could lead to poor sanitation and hygiene. Hygiene is the protection of oneself and your surroundings from dirt in order to live a healthy life while sanitation is the safekeeping of a whole community and country. Whilst water, undoubtedly one of the most important elements, promotes health and general welfare, it can also be a contributing factor to many deadly diseases like; diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery among others if sanitation and hygiene are not put into consideration. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 88% of diarrhoeal cases worldwide are linked to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation or insufficient hygiene. The issue of open defecation has been brought to the attention of the author of this article at a Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) training of facilitators - an approach aimed at improving sustainable access to basic sanitation in communities especially in the rural areas. Many communities particularly in rural areas are without proper latrines. This is both worrying and environmentally unfriendly, because children tend to play with unhealthy substances in their communities. The priority of any government is to protect and safeguard the wellbeing of its citizens, so their health needs and that of their environment is a top priority for many governments.


However, open defecation or OD as it is fondly called, is not only practiced in the rural areas but in the urban centers as well. Our beaches, dump sides, abandoned buildings and even schools are being abused with open defecation. The public has a cultural perception that river water cannot be contaminated, so they use it as latrine not knowing that the practice is harmful to their health; for we get our source from the Futa Djallon highlands and the water flows through different countries before it reaches the river Gambia. There is a possibility that this water may have passed through many dirty areas or even contaminated by human faeces and people use the water for drinking, personal hygiene, performing ablution and cooking among others. It is said that children under 5 are the most vulnerable to open defecation and most individuals neglect their faeces. Some people are with the notion that children's defecation is not harmful to humans. Some mothers even use dry faeces to treat children with infected ears. In this regard, the message that can be put across is that all faeces are equally harmful and if mishandled it could impact negatively on human health. Allowing children to dispose feaces in pitlatrines could also be detrimental and could increase their vulnerability to health hazards.


Apart from open defecation (OD), failing to wash hands with clean water and soap before eating or after using the toilet can also contribute to poor sanitation and personal hygiene in our communities. The fact that many families do wash hands in one basin with a belief that the act helps to maintain peace amongst the family; it is better to use containers like a bottle or kettle for the same purpose rather one big basin for every one. In this way people could easily wash their hands without catching germs through sharing with others. There are people who take lack of soap as an excuse but one can use ash which is almost available everywhere in the country and it contains the same acidic elements as those found in soap to kill germs.


The use of abandoned wells to dump waste is also not advisable as the water cycle is sensitive and can easily contaminate other sources of water supply. Building latrines close to kitchens and wells can also result to deadly diseases particularly when the water level is close to the latrine. Experts noted that: "There should be at least a distance of 30 meters between either a kitchen or well and a latrine." But now that we have insufficient lands, one can survey your territory to know the water level in order to properly position your kitchen and well away from the latrine. Professor Kamal Kar, the founder of Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), which was launched in 1999 in Bangladesh, has brought an almost cure to OD. It is now followed by many countries, which has drastically graduated from open defecation to become open defecation free.


The Gambia, being one of the countries that observe CLTS, has successfully managed to convince many communities to dig up latrines and become open defecation free areas. If one happens to find him/herself in a place where there are no latrines and nature is calling, the individual is advised to dig a hole and bury with care after use. It has also been generally suggested that the CLTS module should be included in the school curriculum to sensitize students who are believed to be the fastest medium of communicating to the society when the message is taken back home.


However, attitudinal change is the best remedy for this peril and once that is done, we will surely attain the impressive level of sanitation and hygiene in developed nations.