Intervention in the WASH sector is a ‘gateway’ to improve other development issues

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Interview with the national coordinator for the Society of Water and Sanitation in Nigeria

By Olajide Adelana

ABUJA, Nigeria - The Society of Water and Sanitation (NEWSAN) is a group of civil society organizations in Nigeria’s WASH sector, supported by WSSCC. Its national coordinator, Benson Attah, recently spoke with WSSCC on the COVID-19 response and his concerns about the community spread of the disease in Nigeria.

WSSCC: What issues should experts in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) address in the face of coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria?

Benson Attah, National Coordinator for the Society of Water and Sanitation: The Coronavirus pandemic emphasizes the key position that WASH occupies and the role it plays in national development. Unfortunately, the importance of WASH was de-emphasized in the composition of Nigeria’s Presidential Task Force Against COVID-19 where there is no representation of the Federal Ministry of Water Resources, the lead agency driving the WASH sector in the country.

The Honourable Minister of the Federal Ministry of Water Resources has inaugurated the National Response Committee on COVID-19, involving the Commissioners of Water Resources of the 36 States, including the members of the National Task Group on Sanitation (NTGS). It’s never too late to put a robust COVID-19 WASH intervention mechanism in place to carry out aggressive sensitization and awareness creation across the country with the support of WASH CSOs.

WSSCC: A lot is being said about handwashing as the first line of defense against COVID-19. How important is handwashing?

Mr Attah: Regular handwashing with soap under running water with conscious control of the hands to avoid touching one’s face helps to keep free from contaminants and remain safe and protected, as long as he or she adheres to this practice. Regular handwashing also prevents infecting or contaminating surfaces and other objects.

WSSCC: Coronavirus has been described as a hygiene crisis. How exactly do you view this with regards to Nigeria’s hygiene realities?

Mr Attah: Poor hygiene has been the major source of most human infections. In growing children, good hygiene practices help children stay healthy, and can never be over-emphasized in the survival and wellbeing of both children and adults.

WSSCC: Considering your expertise in WASH, especially in the area of community emergency management, what concerns you most about the possible spread of COVID-19 in rural and hard-to-reach areas in Nigeria?

Mr Attah: My major concern has to do with mobilizing the prone communities ahead of time. There are locations without potable water where it would be a contradiction to expect the inhabitants to practice regular handwashing. Another area of concern is over the ability of people in rural areas to have access to the right information about the COVID-19 protocol and having it well translated into local languages.

WSSCC: Coronavirus brings several points of reflection for WASH experts. What do you think has to happen in the WASH sector today and in the future?

Mr Attah: In NEWSAN, we have always regarded WASH as the “gateway to development” as it affects every aspect of development, health, education, economy, labour and productivity. In Nigeria, the WASH sector should be more professional in its set up and outlook. Government across different levels should take immediate responsibility by recognizing the prominent role of the WASH civil society groups in ensuring that coronavirus does not spread beyond its present point, and this should be allowed to transit and consolidate gradually into an all-round development that is sustainable. A conducive environment should also be created for the private sector to be able to invest in, and not only practice, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

WSSCC: What lessons can be learnt from COVID-19 to best manage the current outbreak and future epidemics?

Mr Attah: The lesson here for me is to appreciate our individual and collective deficiencies and forge a collective approach to addressing them. Going forward, countries like Nigeria should not see intervention in the WASH sector as a ‘fire brigade’ approach, but rather learn to see the correlation between investment in WASH and the development of her citizens. Nigeria and indeed, all countries should build on the current intervention to curb the spread of COVID-19 to improve their resilience and preparedness in the future.