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By Raza Naqvi
Representatives from organizations in the sector of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) across South Asia participated in a webinar hosted by WSSCC India on 24 April to formulate strategies on protecting vulnerable groups from COVID-19.
Convened in partnership with the Institute for Development Studies in the United Kingdom, the Regional Sanitation Centre (Sri Lanka) and the Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA), the webinar provided a forum where participants could share their experiences in supporting marginalized communities during the pandemic and discuss good practices and innovations in the sanitation and hygiene sector.
The discussions began with Afghanistan, explaining the importance of hygiene and how proper sanitation and hygiene facilities can prevent the spread of deadly diseases.
“One thing that we have learnt during this crisis is to keep our hands clean,” said Ghulam Qader Azad, Director for Water and Sanitation in Afghanistan, “As a result, our government will focus on developing handwashing facilities across the nation, keeping vulnerable communities in mind. We will create awareness among the masses from a WASH perspective,” he said.
Rasheed Bari, who works in the WASH sector in the Maldives, said that his country would put greater focus on the water safety plan and improving sanitation facilities.
“Due to poor sanitation, there’s always the risk of water contamination, which causes diseases,” he said.
“Given COVID-19, we will ensure that there’s water safety for all, and access to basic hygiene services.”
Key focus on vulnerable groups in Nepal
A letter describing efforts by Nepal’s WASH sector was shared during the webinar. It said that local governments and development partners have been installing handwashing stations in areas where poor/vulnerable communities live, and that WUSCs – Water Users’ and Sanitation Committees –are introducing tariff rebate schemes to support water consumers, especially vulnerable groups.
On the question of good practices and innovations to fight COVID-19, the letter stated that the Ministry of Water Supply has prepared a guidance note, in both Nepali and English, on Minimum WASH Requirements in COVID-19 Quarantine and Isolation Centres, in collaboration with National Sanitation and Hygiene Coordination Committee (NSHCC) and development partners. The letter said that the ministry had also facilitated the process of formulating a provincial contingency plan and replicating it at the local level.
COVID-19 included in ODF plus: India
Vinod Mishra, National Coordinator of WSSCC in India, informed webinar participants that his team would be working along with the Government of India (GOI) to help states achieve Open Defecation Free PLUS (ODF+) status, including precautions against COVID-19. He said WSSCC India had received a letter from the GOI indicating there will be a special focus on ‘Swacchagrahis (cleanliness volunteers).’
“Risk mitigation strategies should include using an appropriate combination of social, engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices and personal protective equipment to prevent sanitation worker’s exposures,” he said.
Mishra said the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation and the Department of Panchayati Raj have allowed the gram panchayats (village authorities) to procure disinfectants, masks, gloves and sanitizers for stepping up cleanliness, as they are vulnerable.
Handwashing compendium for low resource settings by IDS
A key element of the webinar was the launch of a handwashing compendium by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), comprising cost-effective ways of ensuring sanitary conditions of particular benefit for people living in low-income settings.
In launching the compendium, Jamie Myers of the IDS addressed the need for better hygiene both during and beyond the current pandemic.
“It is important that people make good hygiene practices a part of their lives, and don’t forget it after we get over with this pandemic,” he said.
“We understand that marginalized communities are often left behind, so to ensure that no one is left behind, the IDS has come up with a handwashing compendium for everyone,” said Myers.
Focus on changing handwashing habits in Sri Lanka
Ananda Jayaweera, a specialist in integrated water resource management in Sri Lanka, described his country’s plans.
“Our plans, from a WASH perspective, would be to change the handwashing habits of the people. The current habit is to wash hands before consuming meals and after defecation, but this needs to be changed. You need to keep your hands clean all the time. To spread this message, we’ll use every possible tool,” he said.
“To protect our poor countrymen, we are ensuring that they are receiving soaps and sanitizers free of cost. We have also installed 61 temporary handwashing stations in areas where people from marginalized communities reside,” he added.
Pakistan making continued efforts to protect the poor
Ms Tanya Khan, WSSCC National Coordinator in Pakistan, informed participants of her country’s continued efforts to battle COVID-19 and protect vulnerable groups from the disease.
“Groups such as the Peace and Development Organization (PADO), Help in Need and OXFAM, among others, are working every day to protect our poor citizens,” Ms Khan.
Mr Furqan Ullah, from PADO, discussed how the WASH sector in Pakistan has been active throughout the coronavirus outbreak.
“We are developing handwashing facilities for vulnerable groups and also providing them with handwashing hygiene kits to ensure sanitary conditions. We will also start a campaign about handwashing to create awareness. Vehicles will be used to disseminate the information so that there’s no human contact,” he said.
Iftikhar Ahmed said his organization, OXFAM Pakistan, is installing water tanks for quarantine facilities.
“We are also distributing PPE kits to healthcare workers and for vulnerable communities. We are providing hygiene kits that contain sanitizer, soap and masks, among other things,” he said.
Urban slums and public toilets in focus: Bangladesh
Participating from Bangladesh, Nurullah Awal, Health Adviser at WaterAid, said that urban slums and public toilets are at the highest priority and that handwashing stations are being installed in urban slums and hygiene kits are being distributed to the poor.
“We are providing hygiene kits, sanitizers and disinfectants to the government authorities, and they are distributing them to the poor,” said Sanat K Bhowmik from COAST Trust, Bangladesh.
“We are also providing these materials to Rohingya refugee camps.”