Clean Water: An Indispensable Ingredient for Nutrition

March 22nd, 2017 | Viewpoint

Why Water and Nutrition?

In Ghana, access to safe drinking water is a challenge. More than 10 million people lack access to safe water and, according to WaterAid, more than 3 million people collect water from unsafe sources, putting them at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. Even when families have access to nutritious food, drinking contaminated water can lead to diarrhea, which prevents the body from absorbing the nutrients in food. Similarly, poor hygiene practices can cause infection and disease that lead to long-term interference with nutrient absorption.

Today, on World Water Day, we focus on the crucial role of clean water in good nutrition and health.

USAID’s multi-sectoral nutrition project — Strengthening Partnerships, Results, and Innovations in Nutrition Globally (SPRING) — is working in the Feed the Future zone of influence in 15 districts in Ghana’s Northern and Upper East regions to improve nutrition through a multifaceted strategy that focuses on 1,000-day households, which are households that include pregnant women and children under age two. During the first 1,000 days, children are most vulnerable to developing nutrition-related health conditions like anemia or stunting, which can cause lifelong cognitive and physical deficiencies.

Research increasingly shows that nutrition is intimately linked to hygiene practices. In children under two, good hygiene is especially important to the absorption of all the nutrients needed for optimal human development during this critical window. As a result, an important component of SPRING’s 1,000-day household approach is the WASH 1,000 strategy, which promotes four key water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) behaviors that help reduce the contamination of food and water in 1,000-day households:

  1. Disinfecting drinking water through boiling for children six months to two years old.
  2. Handwashing with soap or ash prior to food preparation and feeding the child, and after defecation or handling infant/child feces.
  3. Ensuring children have a safe and clean play space free of environmental contaminants (especially animal and human feces).
  4. Safely disposing of adult and child feces through a latrine.
Illustration of a village in Ghana with the four key WASH elements in place.

Supporting safe drinking water through WASH

Young children suffer the most when they drink contaminated water; in Ghana, around 2,100 children under five years old die annually from diarrheal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. Through the WASH 1,000 approach, SPRING works with partners and stakeholders to provide training to environmental health officers, community development staff, school health program officers, natural leaders, and water and sanitation management teams, who bring the four WASH 1,000 messages directly to 1,000-day households. This helps mobilize whole communities so that they understand the connection between clean water and children’s growth and development.

Arishetu pours boiled water into a container to be used for her child. Photo credit: David Nunoo, Mohammed Abdul-Razak, and Rashida Ibrahim.

Arishetu Imoro, a mother in Kpegu in Kumbungu District, said, “I used to give water to my child after the sixth month. Since the adults take the same water with no problems, I thought children can also drink it. This resulted in my daughter having frequent diarrhea.”

Boiling is the simplest, most available technology that households can use to make water safe for drinking. When caregivers understand that there are simple, doable actions they can take for their children’s well being, they are encouraged to take the extra step of boiling their drinking water for them.

“Ever since a training from the [district’s] environmental health officers,” added Arishetu, “I started giving my child boiled water and she doesn’t experience diarrhea any longer. Now I know that even water from a pipe can be contaminated and it should be boiled to kill germs.”

To ensure a sustainable clean water supply in communities, SPRING trains water and sanitation management teams in target communities, which are responsible for operating and maintaining WASH facilities, such as boreholes, latrines, and tippy-taps. So far, SPRING has reached 342 communities with this training; the water and sanitation teams now have nearly 2,500 members.

Arishetu washes her hands at a tippy-tap before feeding her child. Photo credit: David Nunoo, Mohammed Abdul-Razak, and Rashida Ibrahim.

By encouraging a more holistic understanding of nutrition as it is impacted by WASH, SPRING’s work in Ghana has begun changing perceptions of safe drinking water. World Water Day highlights the need to bring this knowledge and support to the billions of people around the world who cannot wait for cleaner water.

Written by David Nunoo

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