How WASH Improves Family Ties in Rural Niger Delta Communities

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The European Union, United Nations Children’s Fund and the Nigerian Government have tapped into the abilities of the world’s most important and yet cheapest ‎liquid- water, and have invested handsomely into it through WASH with the aim to improve socio-economic stability, improvement of individuals and communities and most importantly, family ties. Kuni Tyessi writes

“I will kill you before you infect me with the curse of another man” were the clear words from Okon, a palm wine tapper and village wrestler which could be heard some two kilometres away in the dead of that night.

“You think I don’t know about your escapades each time you go to fetch water? It’s either you tell me that your visitor has come or you are tired for doing nothing for the whole day and now this?” he added while fuming and after giving two resounding slaps to Eno, his wife and mother of four children. The slaps had initially blinded her even though her eyes were open, she could hardly see anything except the faint trace of light from a lantern in the room which gave her confidence that she wasn’t sightless after all.

She had confessed to experiencing some unpleasant changes in her body to Okon that faithful night when he had demanded for what is legitimately his within the confines of marriage.

“Papa Essien, please bear with me‎ and use a condom” was the pleading statement from Eno which served as catalyst to the miserable slaps.

“I have been experiencing some unpleasant changes in my body for three days now and to confirm my fears, Mbok, the nurse at Ekot Nkpene Primary Healthcare Centre told me it’s a toilet infection,” she had earlier explained.

The slaps which had also sent shock waves down her spine, had sent her down to her knees and she cried hysterically and not being sure of Okons next move, she had unconsciously brought her palms together in a prayer mood and begging him still. He had forcefully had his way so many times when she complained of being tired or being a host to her visitor which he felt was a mere intruder as there was no rule to when a man can have access to his wife. But with a toilet infection, how could he do that? It was going to be penny wise and pounds foolish. It was frustrating and it could be seen all over him.

“I swear I have never cheated on you since the day I started bearing your name. God is my witness,” she stated as she continued to cry profusely. After giving her a long angry look, he hissed and left the scene. He dashed into the inner room where all the children were, with the two eldest being conscious of what had transpired between their parents. They both slept depressed even as all of them had continued to inhale the smell of both fresh and dry excreta which most times diffused into their room each time the night breeze blew the putrid smell to the direction of their small open window which must remain open and serving as the only means of ventilation.

So many people in the community had taken to the practice of open defecation for fear of the dreaded toilet disease whose victims were more of women. Besides, with open defecation, water wasn’t required for clean up as leaves or even stones could serve. Water was also not needed for the washing of hands as caution was the watch word.

That was one of Eno’s longest nights as it seemed as if two more days were added to it before dawn surfaced. So many rhetorical questions came to her mind and she recalled how as a teenager of 13‎, she was initiated into the world of womanhood by nature, as after every 21 days, her monthly visitor was what she had been taught to expect by her aged mother who had instructed that on no account must the opposite sex sit close to her, hold her hands or any part of her body, let alone play with her. The result will be an unwanted pregnancy for which she will be disowned, as her body is responding to changes in growth. Maintaining personal hygiene with the use of clean water was not left out of the sermon about the dos and don’ts of puberty.

She was required to cover lengthy kilometres which includes going to the next community to get water, not just for herself but for other members of her family who were all males, but for her mother. More so, she battled with a toilet infection she contacted as a result of the use of a public toilet which was used by over 30 adults and was rarely properly washed, as the use of excess water was regarded a sign of opulence, not to talk of being sanitised which was regarded luxury.

At 31, she was again walking the same path she trod on several years back. Then, she was not accused of any evil but now, the noose of infidelity had been tied round her neck by a man she has been loyal to. Hot tears ran down her face as she thought of her two daughters who are fast growing into women with all the visible signs of curviness at the appropriate places. ‎The situation seemed like a vicious cycle with no hope in sight.

There was pain in her heart as she thought of the fact that her daughters will be exposed to the same treatment she is exposed to if heaven doesn’t smile at them and provide safe water. She wished she could have triple portion of her strength and also some supernatural powers which will aid her in getting more water for the family and also to cover long distances within short periods of time so that she can be saved from Okon’s allegations. She gave a deep sigh and unconsciously travelled with sleep.

Eno’s story is not different from that of several women in the Niger Delta, who are going through the quagmire of non availability of water‎ and the likely challenges it is set to pose. It is no fault of theirs that their communities lack access to good water, but then they have to bear the consequences of the non availability of the commodity which is said to be life.

In an analysis published by the federal government with support from the European Union, UNICEF and UKAID, it was revealed that women’s empowerment is generally measured by their access to resources and their hold over decision making in household, society and community. It stated that viewed from this angle, women empowerment in Water, Sanitation Hygiene (WASH) sector could be linked to their access to WASH services and their social, cultural‎ and historic factors. Women and girls are the major carriers of water for households drinking, cooking, washing and cleaning purposes and meeting the demand of other household chores.

In a recently concluded programme with journalists in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, UNICEF in collaboration with the Child Rights Information Bureau of Akwa Ibom State’s Ministry of Information and Culture, unveiled a European Union-funded project implemented by UNICEF in five states in the Niger Delta which include Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta and Edo.

The discourse was organised to chart a course for improved water situation and understand the link between water and child survival, create visibility for water situation and interventions in the Niger Delta and the country.‎ It was also aimed at understanding UNICEF and EU roles and efforts in WASH in Nigeria.

Also, the project was to increase water supply and quality in the aforementioned states as already, about 57.48 per cent the total population in Nigeria, have access to improved water supply (MICS 2013). Of this percentage, the Niger Delta region makes up of only 16.57 per cent (32 million) of Nigeria’s entire population (190 million) with access to improved water supply.

UNICEF WASH specialist, Mr. Moustpha Niang, during the programme, revealed that based on the water quality challenges in the region and in Nigeria as a whole, the Federal Ministry of Water Resources with the help of UNICEF have developed a Water Supply Plan (WSP) and Rural Drinking Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance Programme to support communities to have awareness of water quality issues and its relationship with water-related diseases.

The reason behind such an investment which has gulped 20 million Euros and is expected to be a five-year project, is to mitigate the conflict in the Niger Delta region by addressing the main causes, bringing lasting solutions, increase access to safe and sustainable water supply services in rural communities and the self-selected local government areas as well as improve sanitation and proper hygiene practice in the rural communities and schools amongst others.

One of those villages is Ikot Nkepne in Nsit Atai Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State. It emerged centuries ago, precisely the 16th century‎ and it consists currently of five smaller units called families and has 140 households with a total population of more than 1,474 people as at the end of 2014 household survey conducted by the WASH committee.

In an address read on behalf of the village head, the village council, the women and youths as well as the entire people of the community, Chief U.D. Udofa stated that when the idea of WASH was first brought to the community’s notice in 2013, it was accepted with all seriousness of purpose in all its ramifications and this led to the establishment of the WASH committee which is composed of 12 members, two females and 10 males with a woman occupying a sensitive office of the treasurer. In the same spirit, a WASH account was opened.

He added that “since the installation of these facilities (which includes borehole, running taps, well-built and structured toilets and basins among others), our health status has improved as evidenced in the reduction of water-related illnesses.”

WASH due to its impact on multiple sectors is very cost effective and globally, it has proven to yield between three dollars to seven dollars per every dollar invested, depending on the type of intervention and the programming context.

With such a peculiar project which has been designed t‎o address the challenges of access to safe water in the Niger Delta region, the likes of Eno can breathe a sigh of relief. It will enable them promote personal hygiene both in their homes and bodies especially as it relates to menstrual hygiene management. The coverage of long distances in search of water for domestic use has been tackled and manpower preserved with visible inputs which will be witnessed in the home front.

Opportunities will abound as such projects that will reduce poverty and create jobs and reduce unemployment, protect an entire family, individuals and communities from diseases, as well as help in saving hard earned monies which would have been used for the treatment of illnesses which can now be avoided.

Others include increased health status, productivity and improvement in social bonding and promote quality family time, give women more time for child care and relaxation, mitigate conflicts through the improvement of WASH committees and their leadership in planning management, as well as capacitate and empower communities to depend on themselves.

Open defecation ‎which has been adjudged not to be peculiar to only the poor in the society will reduce drastically as the excuse that supports it will no longer be viable and its continuous practice labelled as crime. With this, the likes of Eno’s family will not have to bear the brunt of non availability of properly built toilets with running water and will be free to report persons who will want to continually desecrate the space very close to their window.

Nigeria can put the challenge of access to clean water behind her if the government, corporate organisations and individuals can come together and speak with one voice for the common good of all.

Dramatic and sustained increase of funds is expected from the government; development partners should work with the government to ensure that monies provided are used for the purposes for which they were given and everyone carried along. The private sector should be included in a much structured manner for private sector participation.