About 59% of the population in South Sudan lacks access to safe water, while 10% of the population has access to improved sanitation. In order to survive, families are forced to drink dirty water, putting them at risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea, which remain the leading causes of death among children in South Sudan (UNICEF).
We had an opportunity to interview Stephen Lagu, the Head of the Water and Sanitation Department in Gumbo, Juba, and South Sudan. He has served in the position since 2003 in Gumbo – a densely populated suburb on the outskirts of Juba where residents experience problems with Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH).
For the period that you have been in Gumbo, how has the clean and safe water been?
We have experienced many disease outbreaks in Gumbo, especially cholera due to the limited access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation in the region. In Juba, the starting point of a cholera outbreak is normally in Gumbo. The population is more than 15,000 according to the statistics conducted in 2010. By now, the population is estimated to be more than 20,000. Many people live in overcrowded and unsanitary situations in small villages. Even water facilities are not enough, we only have a few boreholes and the entire population depends on water purchased from trucks, which is not a hundred per cent safe. Those who do not afford tend to fetch water from a contaminated stream.
This notwithstanding, the area lacks adequate latrines, which leads to open defecation that facilitates the spread of water-borne diseases. Inaccessibility to water and sanitation has caused a negative impact on the health of families especially children who often miss school due to diseases.
What are some of the activities and interventions Amref Health Africa in South Sudan is doing to support the communities?
Amref has been our partner since 2021. We did a baseline survey in Gumbo and identified gaps. After the survey, we began with community engagement whereby we recruited and trained Water Champions (SWCs) on basic knowledge on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. They have helped communities with awareness messages in hygiene and sanitation as well as water handling and storage. It has been a game changer, especially in sensitising and creating awareness on good hygiene practices and safe water chain management (collection, transportation, storage and use) as well as COVID-19 basic preventive messages.
What is the impact of Safe Water Champions in communities?
The SWCs have made a great impact in the community. Right now we have many community members reaching out to the government for support with construction materials such as slabs, pipes, and iron sheets for constructing latrines.
When you go around the villages in Gumbo, you will witness the change. There is no garbage around the areas and some houses have tables for their clean utensils. People are now progressing, and building latrines in their homes. In addition, most community members are using the local water treatment techniques of boiling water, while those with access to chlorine are using it for water safety.
Tell me about the situation before and now.
People are no longer defecating in open places. In addition, and people are now conscious of the need for a clean environment by sweeping and slashing grasses around their compounds, and there is no stagnant water or lagoons around the community areas. The key resulting impact we have witnessed is the decrease in water-borne diseases. Cases of cholera is no longer there and the rate of malaria infections has dropped because the environment is now clean compared to previous years.
Building on your experience, what concrete recommendation do you have for improving the situation in the Gumbo region?
Our community is vulnerable and we need support, especially with slabs for the latrines. Due to land issues in this community, most tenants do not intend to dig latrines because they do not own the land. We also need water treatment plants so that people can access clean and safe water. In three months, the Safe Water Champions already covered at least 6,000 households, which is a third of the area’s population. In this regard, we need to recruit more SWCs because Gumbo is very expansive.
As a local government, what are you doing to support partners like Amref and other organisations to promote hygiene and good health?
It is important to highlight that at the local government level, we support SWCs to disseminate good hygiene messages. For example, we have greatly supported the SWCs in management, training and supervision. We also supported the baseline survey to identify key priority areas that needed to be addressed. Every month, we meet with SWCs to identify and address some of the challenges they face and thereafter we share the information and report with Amref.
The SWCs are all women and sometimes the community ask why we are not involving men. But we hope for an expanded programme that will recruit male champions as well. Nevertheless, we appreciate the support from Amref in promoting better hygiene and empowering communities with lifesaving knowledge.