Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene: Life-Sustaining Services

Ensuring access to water, sanitation, & hygiene in Myanmar, Uganda, & the D.R. Congo.
ACF-Palestine, courtesy J. Pomerantz

It’s a bitter irony that the torrential rains of a tropical cyclone can leave millions of people without a drop of clean water. When Cyclone Nargis ravaged coastal Myanmar—claiming over 80,000 lives—survivors found that their wells and rice paddies were badly contaminated by brackish floodwaters. Safe drinking water was difficult to obtain; agriculture was nearly impossible.

Clean Water in Post-Nargis Myanmar

It’s a bitter irony that the torrential rains of a tropical cyclone can leave millions of people without a drop of clean water.

With half of its citizens already living below the poverty line, Myanmar would have had little chance of recovering from such sweeping destruction on its own. Fortunately, the world was watching. A generous outpouring of donations enabled Action Against Hunger to join with other organizations in stopping the spread of hunger, dehydration, and disease that often follow a disaster of this magnitude. Soon after the skies cleared, Action Against Hunger began airlifts into affected areas, bringing water purification kits, pumps—and seasoned field staff with the expertise needed to begin the recovery.

Action Against Hunger’s water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs played a crucial role in averting a second humanitarian catastrophe in post-cyclone Myanmar. But the beneficiaries of our programs are not always the victims of headline-grabbing tragedies. Our teams travel to remote communities all over the world, assessing conditions and providing assistance to people whose urgent needs might otherwise go unnoticed.

Supporting Returnees in Uganda

Mrs. Otto Rose, a mother of five from the Ugandan village of Pakiya, spent years in a displacement camp with her children. When the family was finally allowed to return home, they found that Pakiya’s only source of water was nearly dry. The community did what it could by digging new wells, but still the water would not flow.

An Action Against Hunger Water and Sanitation team visited Pakiya to assess the situation. Soon, a new water point was under construction. Meanwhile, Action Against Hunger distributed sanitation kits and began holding education sessions aimed at improving local water and sanitation practices.

The team gave the people of Pakiya a sustainable source of water, as well as the knowledge needed to care for this precious resource. The significance was not lost on Mrs. Otto, who was eager to join the newly-formed water committee. “All I want is to maintain the new water point like one of my children,” she said.

Congolese Refugees in Uganda

Although in Pakiya the Action Against Hunger team knew what they were facing, the mission is not always so clear-cut. In late 2008, Congolese refugees fleeing violence began crossing into western Uganda. Action Against Hunger sent a Water and Sanitation team to prepare for the influx expected at the Matanda camp. Within just a few weeks' time, there were 11,000 refugees living in the camp.

Matanda was intended as a transit center, meaning that people were supposed to stay for no more than one week before they were resettled. However, problems with the proposed resettlement areas meant that many refugees stayed at Matanda for months on end.

Working against challenging sanitation conditions and difficulties in the provision of water, Action Against Hunger was able to adapt to the changing mission at Matanda. “We were lucky that we had skilled and dedicated staff,” said Naruth Phadungchai, Action Against Hunger’s Head of Base in the region. Conditions at the camp steadily improved as the refugees began to resettle at Nakivale in mid-January.

For many of us, clean water and sanitary living conditions are the norm. But to 1 to 2.6 billion people around the world, they are only ambitious dreams. Whether responding to emergencies, improving conditions in isolated villages, or providing for thousands of refugees, Action Against Hunger’s Water and Sanitation programs improve the odds for people in peril.