COVID-19: When Water for Prevention becomes a Health Risk

By Joyce Hilda Efia Aboagye

Children fetching polluted water for domestic use

“We and the cattle drink water from this same stream, it is a very uncomfortable situation for us but we don’t know have a choice as it is the only source of water we have here and it is the same water we use in washing our hands because we want to prevent COVID-19.”
The above statement was made by Ayivi, a 13-year-old resident of Suruku a suburb of Kabonwule, a zonal community in Kpassa, the district capital of Nkwanta North in the Oti Region. He has lived in the community with his parents and 13 siblings all his life.
Throughout their stay, Ayivi and his family just like the over 2800 other residents who live in Suruku and other eight communities in Kabonwule have never had any other source of water except for this stream, which flows from the Oti River.
Washing of dirty cloths, cattle drinking water, people openly defecating and the disposing off feaces all these are at the mercy of said stream, which is also used for drinking, cooking, and washing of hands to prevent contracting the ‘Almighty’ COVID-19 as the safety protocols demand.
What is even more sad and scary is that, they do not boil the water before using it for any of these life-saving activities as I gathered from my interaction with some community dwellers.
So, the question is, what becomes of a society, which depends on a polluted source of water to stay healthy?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the provision of safe water, sanitation and waste management, and hygienic conditions is essential for preventing and for protecting human health during all infectious disease outbreaks, including COVID-19, unfortunately, this is not the situation for residents of Suruku and its sister communities.
Mr Newell Richard a Public Health Nurse at Kabonwule CHPS Compound, the only health facility that serves over nine communities said, “the facility is sometimes overwhelmed by the cases of water-borne diseases that affect the people and it was worse even with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
According to Mr Newell, who has been working at the facility for the last ten years patients are mostly referred to higher facilities because the CHPS compound does not have capacity to treat some of the diseases that affect the people as a result of the polluted water they drink and wash their hands with.
“This brings us extra burden as we have to accompany the patient to the facility he or she has been referred to and our roads too are bad,” he lamented.

Access to water
Although the Sustainable Development Goal 6 calls on its signatories to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, Mr Newell believes that they have been denied of this privilege as the water crisis has worsened with the outbreak of COVID-19.
“The irony of this is that while washing their hands with water expected to protect them from COVID-19, it has rather led to a high rate of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and with Bilharzia currently on the rise overburdening our limited health facilities,” he added.
Mr. Newell indicated that with the exception of Kobonwule, which has a mechanized borehole, and Teacher Kope which has a manual borehole that is even broken down, the rest of the communities depend on the stream for their water.

In this video, the children were being asked why they were fetching water and whether or not they boil it before drinking and their answer was “we drink the water without boiling it and around this time, it is even far cleaner than the Oti river that is why we’ve come here to fetch water for drinking and for other domestic purposes.”

My interactions with some community members revealed that the Oti River is very far from where they live, so it is more convenient for them to fetch water from the stream, which is a bit closer to them even though it is polluted.
Ajo, a 35-year-old mother of four said, “this is the only water we have used all these years and what worries me is that, the Fulani herdsmen also bring their cattle to drink from this same stream when we go to work on our farms. We have spoken to the assembly through our opinion leaders but nothing has been done about the water situation here, so, we have no choice.”
Mr Kojovi Yao, who seemed very agitated about the situation said, “this water is killing us and our innocent children and nobody seems to do anything about it. The neighbouring communities, which had boreholes that we sometimes depended on, have all broken down, and our right to access to quality water has been completly taken away from us.”
Call for support
Mr Newell has called on the Community Water and Sanitation Agency to build a water treatment plant for water to be distributed to the various households, which he believes will help eradicate the recurrent waterborne diseases such as Bilharzia, which is currently prevalent in the community and also enable them to practice the COVID-19 safety protocols especially washing of hands with clean and safe water.
“The Oti river is big enough to serve all people living in Suruku and its sister communities when treated,” he added.
He noted that the boreholes in some of the communities, which have now broken down were constructed in the 1990s when there was an endemic of guinea worm in Ghana and have since had no proper maintenance.
He called on the assembly to as a matter of urgency, repair the broken boreholes to serve the residents with some wholesome water as they hope and pray for a treatment plant to be built for the community saying that, “the water crises should not be taken for granted at all because, people are vomiting blood and are dying from drinking polluted water.”
As a health practitioner, Mr Newell said that he always educates the people upon their visit to the CHPS Compound and during health outreaches on how to boil and treat the water from the stream before they consume it, but trend analysis of the ailment reported at the facility shows the education has not gone down well with the people. He, therefore, called for an intensive and widespread education on the usage of safe water to reduce the number of cases if not totally eradicate it.
Way forward
Article 1.1 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, stipulates that, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity.” This is affirmed by Article 15, which also defined the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.
This clearly shows that the people of Suruku and its surrounding communities are being excluded from or marginalized in relation to access to clean and safe water to protect them from waterborne diseases and even more deadly, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now more than ever, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that water is life and it is about time that duty-bearers take a critical look at the situation. It is expected that government ensures that respect for human rights is integrated into development plans at all levels.

The writer is a Mentee on the “Mobilizing the Media for Fighting COVID-19” project being implemented by the Journalists for Human Rights in collaboration with the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA).

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