Stories From The Field

What we talk about when we talk about water-borne illness

Stick with us. This is a good story, not a gross one.

by Chelsea Herman


We mention it now and then, and if you read between the lines of many of our stories, it’s there. Because when we talk about water-borne illness, the symptom we’re usually referring to is … yes, that.

We’ve all had it (though we rarely talk about it). It’s never pleasant. Now imagine having diarrhea often — chronically, even — but not having a working toilet. Not being able to wash your hands.

Safe water alone can reduce the chance of diarrheal disease by 21%. But the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that washing hands with soap and water could reduce deaths from diarrheal disease by up to 50%.

Which is why clean water is just part of the equation. Adding latrines and hand-washing stations? That’s how you turn the health — and dignity — of a community around, dramatically.

We saw this turnaround for ourselves on a recent visit to Behevun, a remote community in Sierra Leone. Back in August, we shared the moment when clean water began flowing from their new water point, built by our friends and partners at GOAL Sierra Leone.

There was singing. There was dancing. There were big smiles all around — infectious, irrepressible grins. If you want to smile yourself, (re)watch this video.

And now? Six months after that joyful day, are the people of Behevun still smiling?

They sure are.

What that video didn’t show was the sanitation infrastructure that accompanied the arrival of clean water: three latrines, and thirteen handwashing stations.

Everyone we spoke to told us that life as they know it has changed. And a major factor in that change is no more — well, you know.

But people in Behevun aren’t afraid to say the word. After all, it was a daily reality for members of their community.

“When we were using the old source we were having different types of water-related health issues, like diarrhea and other diseases,” Kadie told us. “Now that safe drinking water is at our doorstep all the health concerns are no more. And our environment is clean.”

And Hawa is happy that her daughter, Mamie, will have a different experience than she had as a mother of young children.

“Before clean water, it was a big challenge for us to even raise our kids.”

Years ago, Hawa even lost a baby because of the consequences of dirty water. One week after giving birth, her diarrhea got so severe that she was transported to the clinic, four miles away, in a hammock. As her husband and other family members carried her, they were convinced she would die. She didn’t, but even after a week in the hospital she was too dehydrated to produce breast milk. Sadly, her baby did not survive.

So Hawa wanted something better for her grandson, Augustine. She wanted Mamie’s experience of motherhood to be free from the fear she herself experienced.

“I know that the grandchildren will be better,” Hawa told us as the well was tapped. “They will be safe.”

And they have been. The water point, the latrines and the handwashing station are finally breaking the cycle of illness and loss. Hawa is healthy, and so is her family.

“All the health problems are no more. Now Augustine is doing well because of the new water point.”

“I feel fine and healthy, which is a major change. I was having a lot of issues with my health when I was drinking from the stream, but since I started drinking from the new water point I feel extremely fine.”

An extremely fine outcome, don’t you think?

Photos by Cubby Graham and Grace Kamanda