Global Handwashing Day: Why Scotland must take an internationalist approach to providing people with clean water – Shirley Campbell

This year more than any other has highlighted the importance of good hand hygiene. Washing your hands regularly with clean water and soap for at least 20 seconds is one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Thursday, 15th October 2020, 7:00 am
Lucie, 13, and Diane, 12, standing with a bucket in the doorway of a stall in the new menstrual hygiene management room at Ecole Primaire Muyange in Nyamagabe District, Rwanda, in February last year (Picture: WaterAid/James Kiyimba)
Lucie, 13, and Diane, 12, standing with a bucket in the doorway of a stall in the new menstrual hygiene management room at Ecole Primaire Muyange in Nyamagabe District, Rwanda, in February last year (Picture: WaterAid/James Kiyimba)

Until a vaccine is created, it will remain one of the first lines of defence against the virus. Yet today, as the world marks Global Handwashing Day, huge numbers of people across the world still do not have access to this basic human right.

A staggering three billion people – two in five of the world’s population – do not have soap and water to wash their hands at home. More than 800 million school pupils globally cannot wash their hands at school. In many countries, when you do get sick and go to hospital, you are put at further risk there – as more than half of healthcare facilities in the least developed countries do not have access to clean water on site.

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Last year, I had the privilege of travelling to Rwanda to see some of the efforts to bring the basic rights of water, sanitation and hygiene to vulnerable schools and communities.

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In the country’s southern province, a partnership between WaterAid, Scottish Water and the Scottish Government is changing the lives of thousands of people.

Climate change may bring water shortages

The Scottish Government’s international development fund has enabled WaterAid, working through local partners, to create and train school hygiene clubs in 105 schools in Nyamagabe District. The clubs focus on handwashing, safe handling of drinking water, proper use of inclusive sanitation facilities and menstrual hygiene management.

This, coupled with the creation of 637 community hygiene clubs, has meant that over 300,000 people have now been reached with hygiene behaviour change messages. Access to handwashing in the district has now increased to 85 per cent in households and 89 per cent of schools.

Scottish Water employee fundraising has provided decent toilets and menstrual hygiene management rooms in 10 schools. This year, five rainwater harvesting tanks will be constructed, providing access to clean water for handwashing, and offering protection from any future water shortages induced by climate change.

When the pandemic hit, the project mobilised quickly, launching a Covid-19 prevention awareness campaign in remote villages, rapidly building handwashing facilities in public places, and distributing soap and hand sanitiser to all healthcare facilities in the district.

Water can increase access to education

In Scotland, it is so easy to take water for granted – we turn on a tap, and fresh, clean, great-tasting drinking water flows out. It is incredibly important to Scottish Water that we also show solidarity with people throughout the world who lack these basic rights and do what we can to support projects like this in Rwanda.

Covid-19 has underlined just how vital access to clean water is to living a fulfilled life and for countries to achieve sustainable development.

Access to water unlocks other positive impacts. It enables women and girls to get an education, when they are freed from the daily burden of walking long distances to fetch water. It allows health care workers to deliver a high standard of care to protect their patients. It frees children from the threat of regular sickness, allowing them to thrive and build their communities.

Often, the same communities who don’t have access to water are also the first to be hit by the impacts of climate change. Increased frequency and intensity of flooding, droughts, heat-waves and sea-level rise is already threatening the lives and livelihoods of people across the world.

Covid-19 has been an immediate emergency, but the climate emergency has never gone away. It is vital that we re-build from the pandemic with solutions for communities threatened by the climate crisis too.

Resilience in face of future crises

According to the World Health Organisation, every $1 invested in water, hygiene and sanitation brings estimated returns of $5.5 in sub-Saharan Africa. Investment in this area now as an immediate response to Covid-19 will therefore also have tremendous long-term benefits. This is an opportunity to build back better in international development and to catch-up on progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals.

Covid-19 has taught us just how important the most basic of needs are. It has renewed our appreciation of warm homes, reliable electricity, and safe, clean, readily available drinking water. Scotland’s expertise in water is world-renowned, and it’s more important than ever that we take an internationalist approach and help other countries to build strong water systems for their people.

Tough times are ahead economically in Scotland, the UK and across the world. Communities in countries like Rwanda will be particularly hit by the post-Covid economic downturn, and they will have to endure this alongside the ongoing effects of climate change.

It’s at times like this that internationalism is more important than ever, to protect and empower some of the poorest people in the world to build and develop their own solutions to poverty. Safe, secure and reliable access to water, sanitation and hygiene is vital for any community in Scotland, Rwanda or anywhere else to be resilient in a crisis.

The Scottish Government is currently undertaking a review of its international development policy in light of Covid-19. I have seen first-hand what an impact this funding has on communities in its partner countries in Africa.

The pandemic is a stark reminder of just how important this work is. By harnessing the goodwill of Scottish Water employees, our partners and the wider Scottish public, we have been able to join with the Scottish Government to maximise our support for the poorest people in the world.

By providing such basic rights as clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene, we can help enable communities to flourish, and resist future crises.

Shirley Campbell is director for people at Scottish Water

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