Got toilets? MN native works to flush away water problems, improve sanitation in Africa

| November 7, 2012 | 0 Comments


There are “world” days set aside to celebrate all kinds of things: World Teachers Day, World Day of Social Justice, World Health Day — just to name a few.

There’s even a World Toilet Day every Nov. 19. And while it may draw a few snickers, it’s no laughing matter for the 2.5 billion people around the world who don’t have access to a toilet and struggle with illnesses related to lack of clean water and sanitation.

According to the World Health Organization, diarrheal diseases annually claim the lives of about 2 million people, most of them children less than 5 years old. If current trends continue, by 2015 there would be 2.7 billion people without access to basic sanitation.

Raising awareness about the need for clean water, better sanitation and hygiene “is so important,” said Katherine Cunliffe, Catholic Relief Services’ East Africa regional technical adviser for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene).

According to the WHO, for every dollar spent on sanitation, there’s a $5 economic return. “We’re looking at increasing awareness and knowledge about why it’s important to do basic things like hand washing,” she said, and having access to toilet facilities.

Minnesota native

After graduating from Bucknell University with a degree in chemical engineering, Cunliffe, a Northfield, Minn., native, decided against a job in a laboratory and joined the Peace Corps in Panama.

“That’s where I really started doing water work,” she said. “I started building and designing water systems, mainly gravity-fed water systems, and working with the government in Panama.”

Later, she went back to school, earning a master’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“I decided I wanted to further my studies and kind of complement the engineering side with public health,” she said.

While at Johns Hopkins, she organized a World Water Day event and invited speakers from different nongovernmental organizations. Dennis Warner, senior technical adviser for Water Supply, Sanitation and Water Resources Development at Catholic Relief Services, was there and invited her to work in India, where CRS was dealing with water issues related to recent flooding.

Cunliffe’s three months in India turned into three years. She subsequently worked with CRS Latin America and now in East Africa.

She supports six country programs: Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. There also is an outreach program in Djibouti.

When CRS works on a project in those countries, “we always make sure it’s a full package because water, sanitation and hygiene are all important to stop the spread of diarrheal disease,” she said.

The organization works to ensure that people don’t have to walk miles to get water and that it is safe to drink. It is also important for livestock to have water as well as occupations like brick-making.

“In East Africa we have so many arid areas, so you don’t want to waste a drop of water,” Cunliffe said. “And with the water supply system, sustainability is such an issue. You can so easily give some money and go dig a well.”

But that’s the easy part. CRS makes sure the systems they set up are sustainable. They work with local governments and members of the community to see what each stakeholder can bring to the project.

“You have to look at . . . water resource management,”?she said. “Is this watershed being protected? How are we capturing the water? So it’s looking at the long-term sustainability.”

Children teaching parents

Cunliffe said the most successful programs she has worked on with CRS are school water and sanitation interventions. “I see incredible behavior changes in children,” she said. They often go home and tell their parents that they need to build a latrine or they need a handwashing station or they need soap, she added.

Cunliffe said she took water for granted when growing up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

“I got water out of the tap when I wanted to and used the toilet when I needed to,” she said. “It is such a luxury here that we don’t even think about.”

“It’s a human right that everyone should have access to water, and it seems so simple, but its not,” she said.

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Category: U.S. & World News