Keynote address: Working together to empower African children through safe water and good sanitation


Eric Kashambuzi

Let me begin by thanking the people of San Diego for the warm welcome. I also thank the organizers especially Ms Vickie Butcher for inviting me to participate in this 18th Annual Africa Trade & Business Conference on the theme: Building Sustainable Economic Bridges Back to Africa. This conference is taking place so soon after the historic USA-Africa Summit, thanks to President Barak Obama’s vision and after the United Nations General Assembly renewed its efforts to provide safe water and good sanitation between now and 2030.

While addressing participants during the Africa week at the United Nations that ended yesterday, the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations Jan Elliason expressed his personal support to the efforts to provide good sanitation which he has championed in the Call to Action on Sanitation since 2013.

He reported that around the World two and half (2.5) billion people don’t have toilets and over one billion people practice open defecation.

As a keynote speaker, I am going to focus on the need for partnership between Africans and Americans in finding lasting and affordable solutions to the challenges of water, sanitation and hygiene in general that African children face.

Children everywhere are more vulnerable than any other demographic age group to the ill effects of contaminated water, poor sanitation and lack of hygiene. For instance, children under five years of age account for 90 percent of deaths from diarrhea.

To understand the challenges of water and sanitation and find lasting solutions we need to understand ourselves first and operate from the same page. Education and training especially of the youth on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean will play a key role in this endeavor.

It is well known that conflicts, misunderstandings and even wars as well as poor design and implementation of development programs often spring from poor communication.

But before doing that let me thank those Americans that have already collaborated with Africans on the critical issue of water and sanitation for African children. Water for Children Africa, Inc. which was founded in 1993 deserves special appreciation for its clear mission and work already done in Africa. For easy reference, the mission is to:

1. provide safe, sustainable water to rural villages through the transfer of appropriate technology;

2. Train recipients in repair and maintenance of equipment, public health education, and economic development;

3. Build an entrepreneurial bridge to improve the commercial relations between the U.S. and Africa; and

4. Help U.S. youth develop leadership skills and vision for the future development of Africa.

In her remarks at the 17th conference on Trade and Business Ms. Vickie Butcher said: “We inspire and educate youth to direct their creativity and skills to the development of the African continent”.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s when Africa was emerging out of colonialism I was a graduate student at the University of California at the Berkeley campus. At that time there was a shared feeling among African students that our African-American brothers and sisters regarded us as belonging to a lower social class that drove some of us to the other camp that painted African-Americans as lacking in many respects.

This divide made it difficult to work together even when we were taking the same classes.

The good news is that with time the perception is changing because as Americans visit Africa they have realized that the situation is different from what had been presented in the media.

There is also recognition that all human beings are born free and equal in rights and dignity regardless of race, class, gender or geographic location. We should therefore listen to and treat one another as equals.

Education and training, visiting Africa and interacting with one another more often as in this conference will help bring us closer together. Ms. Vickie Butcher hit the nail on the head when she stated that “Past trips to Africa, surveys, interviews, team experiences and lessons learned continue to be the building blocks for the future activities of our organization. We continue to strive for better approaches to provide safe water, sanitation, hygiene, housing and agriculture to rural villages”.

I urge Americans and Africans not only to continue to listen to one another but most importantly to hear what one is saying to the other and internalize the messages so that we find a common ground, shared vision or a framework within which to build sustainable economic bridges back to Africa.

All I can say at this juncture is that in rural Africa where levels of poverty, illiteracy and disease are very high we need to listen even more to what peasants are saying lest we are misunderstood as elites that know what is good for rural Africa. Let me add that even in this sad environment, African peasants know what they want and even what to do but need an enabling environment and effective participation in matters that affect their lives. Those with open minds and ears that have visited Africa or worked and lived among rural communities can attest to this.

Therefore African and American partnership should create an enabling environment that helps African rural communities to articulate the challenges they face in accessing safe drinking water and adequate sanitation at home and at school. Americans should therefore develop skills and creativity to respond appropriately to African needs rather than dictate what African peasants and their children need in water and sanitation matters.

Another point I wish to stress is that in our partnership we need to recognize that water and sanitation is an integral part of overall economic and social development processes. Thus, development will be retarded through poor health of Africans due to unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Fortunately the international community and increasingly other entities understand the link between safe water and good sanitation and rapid and equitable development and poverty eradication.

That this linkage has been appreciated water and sanitation was included in the Millennium Declaration and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were adopted by world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly of 2000. It was agreed in the MDGs to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water and adequate sanitation by 2015.

In 2006 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) published a Human Development Report (HDR) on water and sanitation. It said in part “Throughout history water has confronted humanity with some of its greatest challenges. Water is a source of life and a natural resource that sustains our environment and supports livelihoods. But it is also a source of risk and vulnerability. … In a world of unprecedented wealth almost 2 million children die each year for want of clean water and adequate sanitation. Millions of women and young girls are forced to spend hours collecting and carrying water, restricting their opportunities and their choices. And waterborne infectious diseases are holding back economic growth and poverty reduction in some of the poorest countries”.

In his remarks on this report the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardizes both the physical and social health of all people. It is an affront to human dignity”.

And Kevin Watkins added that “Deprivation linked to water is a source of poverty, of inequality, of social injustice, and of greater disparities in life chances. That deprivation matters because water is a human right – and none of us should turn a blind eye to the violation of human rights. Nor should we tolerate a world in which over 1 million children are … dying for a glass of water and a toilet”. In developed countries safe water and good sanitation are taken for granted.

Given poor performance in the provision of safe water and good sanitation, the General Assembly has again in 2014 in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the post-2015 development agenda from 2016 through 2030 stressed the importance of water and sanitation and established goal 6 and targets and means of implementation:

Target 6.1: by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all;

Target 6.2: by 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations;

MOI 6.b: support and strengthen the participation of local communities for improving water and sanitation management.

You can clearly see that there are similarities between the work you are doing and what is being undertaken at the United Nations level on water and sanitation.

Ipso facto, Water for Children Africa, Inc. should be commended for deciding to focus on safe water and adequate sanitation in Africa for maximum impact rather than scatter limited financial and human resources over many sectors with minimum or no impact at all.

The urgency of providing safe water and good sanitation was highlighted in a special report published by African Business in December 2013. It underscored that “Without water, there can be no human existence. While easy and cheap access to clean water is taken for granted in developed and many developing regions, Africa is still lagging behind. Few African cities can claim to be able to provide water to all the people who live in them and rural areas fare even worse”.

The report added “An equally important related utility, sanitation, is often ignored but its economic cost to the continent is around $30 billion. The cost in terms of poor health, illness and wasted time is almost incalculable”.

In 2008 African government agreed to allocate and spend at least 0.5 percent of their GDP on sanitation and hygiene and to have other budget lines for water and sanitation to improve accountability and track progress. Notwithstanding, implementation has fallen far short of commitment. As a result around 2,000 children die daily due to diarrhea caused by lack of access to safe toilets and clean water. Money that could have been invested in productive activities covers health costs. “If everyone had access to adequate sanitation and water services, patients would save themselves $565 million and world’s health sectors would save around $12 billion every year”.

Contaminated water and inadequate sanitation have lowered school attendance and performance and work productivity with an adverse economic impact of about 3 percent of GDP.

Besides, children can’t learn when they are too weak as a result of morbidity associated with waterborne diseases. UNICEF has reported that only 33 percent of primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa have adequate sanitation facilities. Consequently where adequate facilities and services don’t exist waterborne diseases spread rapidly and affect children who either cannot concentrate in class or stay out of school altogether. The education of children especially of girls is therefore impaired.

When women are educated, they acquire skills for productive employment, get good jobs, earn high incomes, reduce poverty and become empowered. Empowered women are able to manage their reproductive behavior without spouse pressure and end up with fewer children, contribute to reduction in population growth and lower child dependency and thereby increase savings for productive investments.

We know that the world has enough technology, expertise and financial resources to solve water and sanitation-related problems. What is needed is the will to do so within Africa and between Africa and her partners.

Investing in water and sanitation is also good business. The World Bank has shown that every $1 dollar invested in sanitation yields a return of $5 dollars. Furthermore investing in sanitation by encouraging communities to build toilets and water supply facilities and teaching children the basics of hygiene reduces morbidity and mortality from waterborne diseases considerably.

It has been shown that washing hands with soap in running water before touching food reduces the incidence of diarrhea by 50 percent. It has been recommended that where soap is not available, ash can be used (Facts for Life. UNICEF et al., Fourth edition, 2010).

Education and training will therefore play an important role in addressing the challenges of water and sanitation. Schools and community centers are the best places to create awareness of the impact of hygiene on health and economic development. Besides teaching hygiene schools need to provide separate clean private facilities for girls to be able to attend to their sanitary needs. Often girls miss classes during their periods because of lack of suitable facilities.

Investment in water and sanitation is not only good business; it is also relatively cheap. Studies conducted in Madagascar and reported in African Business in 2013 show that communities spend up to $9 for a basic model toilet with cement and wooden cover. An improved toilet with a ceramic slab and pan costs an average of $20. A sanitary mason reported that even when there were micro-finance facilities, some households chose not to borrow but pay cash once they understood the importance of toilets.

In my own home village in Uganda I worked with communities to tap spring water and construct latrines cheaply. The communities supplied labor and I paid for cement, sand, pipes and the mason to construct wells at an average of $15 each. Harvesting rain water was also achieved through using drums and water tanks made of sand and cement.

Communities were also assisted to construct latrines and trained in washing their hands in running water with soap or ash and to keep water in clean containers. Consequently, child morbidity and mortality declined considerably and their nutrition improved because of reduced incidence of waterborne diseases.

It is important to stress that awareness of the health and economic benefits of safe water and adequate sanitation has to be created in the community before sustained response is generated so that communities can choose to spend their meager resources on safe water and sanitation than on something else.

African and American partners need to understand that creating awareness must be a prerequisite for providing safe water and adequate sanitation.

Many worthy projects have not been sustainable largely because the so-called beneficiaries were not engaged and had no interest to invest in maintaining them. It is therefore very important that we keep in mind the necessity to engage African communities at all levels so that in the end these communities become the owners of the process and outcomes.

Thus, for this purpose human and institutional capacities for water and sanitation should be constructed within African rural communities.

To conclude, the overall lesson we have learnt is that education and training are and will remain the key instrument in creating awareness of the importance of safe water and good sanitation and in understanding one another better. Regarding the latter, the recently concluded and historic U.S – Africa Summit will play a critical role.

Thank you for your attention.