Clean water in a time of crisis

A local health promoter refills a chlorine dispenser. Photo: Jean Bassette/Oxfam America
A local health promoter refills a chlorine dispenser. Photo: Jean Bassette/Oxfam America

When Jean Bassette first visited communities near Kolda, Senegal, people were struggling to find enough food following a bad harvest the previous year. A specialist in emergency response working for Oxfam in West Africa, Bassette knows from experience that in a food crisis, clean water is essential to help people avoid waterborne diseases and get the most nutrition possible out of what food they can find.

In one Senegalese village called Fafacourou, he said the chief brought him to see the wells from which the residents got their drinking water. The wells were in poor condition, and the water was very cloudy. “He was very conscious that the level of malnutrition there was directly linked to the water, sanitation, and hygiene situation,” Bassette said months later. “It was really sad, particularly when he explained the effect of the food crisis on the community, and particularly the many children affected by malnutrition and diarrhea.”

Bassette and his team were determined to improve the quality of drinking water around Kolda. They decided to try an idea previously used in Haiti during a cholera epidemic: chlorine dispensers. These consist of a small container with a ball valve that releases a measured dose of chlorine solution into containers of well water before villagers carry them home.

Oxfam worked with a local partner organization, FODDE, to position 98 chlorine dispensers at 49 water points so that 1,951 families could treat their own water. FODDE and Oxfam held meetings to train people how to use the dispensers, and promoted their use in radio programs. FODDE trained local public health promoters to maintain and stock the dispensers, and to encourage families to use them. “This project had an unbelievable level of community participation,” said Bassette. “Local management committees, mostly women, took responsibility for filling the dispensers with the chlorine solution, and they were involved in all aspects of the project.”

A few months later, a survey found that the majority of families were successfully treating their water with chlorine. As one woman told Bassette, “Before the project, our community had a lot of cases of diarrhea and malnutrition, and people spent a lot of money at the hospital, despite their modest means. Sometimes we would lose our children. Since this project started, there have been significant changes in our community.’”