The real life impact of poor access to clean water and sanitation on pregnant women in rural Nigeria

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By Olajide Adelana, ABUJA, Nigeria – Poor access to clean water in rural communities has far-reaching consequences for livelihoods and health – particularly for women.

These consequences are being keenly felt in a slum community called Duste Makaranta in Abuja, Nigeria. Despite its proximity to Usuma Dam (a public water supply facility), years of water shortages have been disproportionately affecting women, especially those who are pregnant. Hannah Abdul, who lives in Duste Makaranta, spoke with WSSCC about the issue, expressing her fears that climate change is worsening the situation.

Six months ago, Ms Abdul, who is in her late thirties, was expecting her third child. But two nights before her due date, she felt that something was wrong. The baby had stopped moving. The silence in her belly continued as she was rushed by her husband to a nearby hospital. Minutes later, it was finally confirmed the baby had died.

As Ms Abdul underwent a caesarean to remove the dead fetus, she felt a cocktail of shock, anger, despair and disbelief. She could not help but search through the details of her previous few months to find answers. Ms Abdul says poor access to clean water tops the list.

“Here, we depend heavily on water from a stream down the hills. We know the water is not clean, but we have no choice. We need water to shower, cook and do other things. The stress of going to fetch water during my pregnancy is no doubt one of the reasons why my pregnancy turned out that way,” says Ms Abdul.

Lack of access to clean drinking water and living in poor sanitary conditions are known to result in largely preventable water-related diseases such as typhoid, cholera and giardiasis. These water-related diseases have proven to negatively impact maternal health and pregnancy outcomes.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that good maternal hydration allows both mother and fetus to react appropriately to changes in order to keep conditions in the body stable. Hence, access to clean water and living in a hygienic environment are crucial for Ms Abdul and other pregnant women in the community.

Although, she could not access further laboratory tests to confirm why she lost her baby, due to financial constraints, Ms Abdul insists both malaria and typhoid were regular diseases that plagued her during pregnancy.

“I was always falling sick during pregnancy. If it is not malaria this time, it will be typhoid the next time. I was not the only one that fell ill. Other members of my family also did. At least a member of my family was always sick every six weeks during my pregnancy and the trend has continued even as we speak. My two children just came back from the clinic because of high fever.”

Abdul is also worried that recent climatic conditions may worsen the situation in her community. She says the water at the stream is often cloudy with a visible increase in greenish algae. She fears that recent high temperatures could further exacerbate their situation as the stream continues to shrink.

“Although the water we get from the stream is not clean I fear that we may suffer more when it dries up. The sun has been very hot recently and it has been affecting the water. The stream is drying up, with greenish substances on the surface of the water. Unless government provides us with piped water, we may have to brace up for the worst.”

Other issues that worry Ms Abdul and other women in the community include security and the topography of the area. Due to the hilly nature of the community, residents have to descend from the hill into the valley where the stream is located.

“It is one stress too many. I feel pains underneath my belly where they carried out the caesarean operation whenever I am climbing the hill with a basin of water steadied on my head.”

Ms Abdul’s neighbour, Ms Benjamin, says she and other women in the community spend an average of three hours fetching water from the stream because of its distance from their homes.

“We rarely go to the stream to fetch water in the evening because of the fear of being attacked by bad people. They used to attack us sometimes on our way to the stream especially in the evening,” she said.