Safe water supply is key to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic but access to this vital commodity remains elusive for millions of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Water access gaps in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) remain, both at institutions such as healthcare facilities and schools, and at the household level, endangering millions lives by the lack of simple hygiene practices such as handwashing.
According to Water.org, a non-profit organisation that aims to increase access to water and sanitation globally, 41 per cent of Kenyans do not have basic sanitation solutions while 15 per cent use unimproved water sources including ponds, shallow wells and rivers.
“Now more than ever, access to safe water is critical to the health of families so they can prepare and protect themselves from COVID-19 pandemic and other diseases,” says Patronilla Musonye, a project officer at the Kenya Water for Health Organisation (KWAHO), a non-profit organisation that promotes the right to access to safe water and health.
Schools lack basic water services
The latest WASH report on schools, which compares data on 2015 and 2019, also describes the implications for ensuring the safety of students and school staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, two-thirds of countries with less than 50 per cent coverage of drinking water in schools were in Sub-Saharan Africa, the report adds. For example, only 36 per cent of schools in Nigeria had basic water services, which is lower than the average for Sub-Saharan Africa: 44 per cent.
According to the report, at least 30 per cent of schools in Benin, Cameroon and Senegal had limited drinking water service. “Consequences for lack of basic water services go beyond just washing hands and quenching thirst,” Musonye says.
Adolescent girls missing school due to their periods is a growing phenomenon in Sub-Saharan Africa. The report cites the results of a survey of girls aged 15-24 years in West Africa showing that one in four girls in Nigeria, one in five in Côte d’Ivoire and one in seven in Burkina Faso missed school due to menstruation in the last 12 months.
When in school, teachers and students may struggle to manage menstruation if toilets lack water to enable them wash and change when needed. In Nigeria, for instance 41 per cent of urban schools and just 14 per cent of rural schools had water and soap available for girls’ toilet compartment, the report notes.
Even fewer schools had covered bins in toilets and mechanisms for disposing of menstrual materials, but urban schools were twice as likely to have these facilities than rural schools.
According to the report, more than half of the 462 million children globally (244 million children) who lacked hygiene service at their schools in 2019 were in Sub-Saharan Africa but inadequate data to estimate the exact number of affected schools is a concern in countries of this region.
The report adds that most schools in high income countries have piped water supplies but the situation is different for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where most schools use other types of improved sources including boreholes, rainwater or protected wells and springs.