Friday, July 24, 2009

Health Education, Water Testing, and Renk

Here's another album- most of this one is from a visit to a health education session, where facilitators were working with the community to talk about how to prevent things like malaria and diarrhea, etc. I also have photos in this one from a visit to a few water sources, and a testing program put in place after the use of filters. Finally, there are a few random ones from Renk. There's a story about the water testing below the photos...

A fresh, and safe, cup of the Nile

Magara, Upper Nile state (Sudan) – Miriam Adam’s two- year-old daughter takes hold of a plastic cup with both hands and tips her head back, taking enormous gulps of water. She quickly drains the cup, putting it down with a satisfied look. Not long ago, her cup of water, drawn from the banks of the Nile less than 200 meters away, could have contained any number of viruses and parasites- now, Adam has no need to worry about what her daughter drinks.

“The kids were sick, but they aren’t now,” she says, speaking in Arabic.

Six months ago, Mercy Corps and a consortium of three other non-governmental organizations came to Magara village to provide water filters for the community, who until now had been drinking contaminated surface water from open pools and the Nile River without any form of treatment. The filters given to the people of Magara, which look like small concrete pillars with a spout protruding from the side, are locally made and easy to produce. When used properly, they provide an easy and cheap way for people to access safe drinking water, an important step on the path to better and healthier lives.

“When contaminated water is poured in, it trickles through and the bacteria, viruses and suspended solids get trapped in between grains of sand. As a result, clean water comes out,” explains Francis Okello, the Water and Sanitation Sector Head for the Northern Upper Nile Recovery and Rehabilitation Programme (NUNRRP). “The filtered water is absolutely safe,” he adds. “It’s obviously better to drink water from the filter than directly from the river.”

This technology, known as the bio-sand filter, was first developed at the University of Calgary (Canada) in the mid- 20th century, and uses the principle of slow-sand filtration to make contaminated water drinkable. The filter contains a bottom layer of gravel, with another layer of finer sand on top. When river or well water is poured through the filter, the grains of sand trap bacteria and viruses, and eliminate turbidity (cloudiness).

While the bio-sand filters are a new addition for families in southern Sudan, the concept of slow-sand filtration is a very old one. “Since time immemorial we’ve been using slow- sand filtration on a large scale for big cities but never at a household level,” says Okello. “We’re simply scaling it down from commercial to household level, but the principle remains the same.”

The filters require virtually no maintenance, only an occasional cleaning, as there are no moving or electronic parts. Simple designs such as these ensure durability in the harsh environment of southern Sudan. The filters come in three varieties, each constructed from different materials, but designed with the same basic structure of an upper chamber filled with sand and gravel, and a faucet or spout. The cheapest filters are made from zinc, and cost approximately 28 Sudanese pounds (11 U.S. dollars) to produce. Filters can also be built from plastic barrels or cast from concrete, but each of these is more expensive, 80 and 42 pounds (32 and 17 U.S. dollars), respectively.

“When the gravel and the sand become dirty I clean it out and wash it,” says Mohammed Ahmed, a resident of Magara, just off the single strip of dusty tarmac stretching more than 500 kilometers from Renk to Khartoum. Ahmed and his wife have four children- before receiving the filter six months ago, water-borne diseases were a constant issue for the family.

“We used to get sick with diarrhea and worms,” he says. “Now that we have the filter there are no diseases to worry about.”

Underground water is located far too deep in the area around Renk to drill boreholes for hand pumps, meaning that people have traditionally relied on water gathered from the river or other standing sources, leading to high levels of disease. Since 2007, Mercy Corps and its consortium
partners– the Fellowship for African Relief (FAR), Strømme Foundation, and Tearfund– have provided more than 2,200 filters to households throughout Upper Nile State. If each filter theoretically serves a family with multiple children, more than 10,000 people are likely to benefit from pure drinking water.

“People are much healthier now,” Okello says. “For years they’ve been unable to access safe drinking water, and just getting it from the Nile. Since the introduction of the bio-sand filters we’ve seen reduced rates of diarrhea and other diseases.”

The filters work extremely well, but the organization regularly tests the water to ensure their continued effectiveness. On a recent Friday morning Peter Agok, a Sanitation Supervisor for Mercy Corps, and Charles Primo, a Water and Sanitation Officer for the organization, visit several water sources and families around the town of Renk. Their plan is to sample water from the filters, and see how it differs from original sources such as wells and the Nile.

Agok and Primo’s first stop is at the village of Kolang, where they want to see the hafir (reservoir), located about 20 kilometers from Renk, along a bumpy dirt track. The hafir is
a large pit, dug in 2008 by Mercy Corps. It is roughly 20 meters by 40, and three meters deep, according to Primo, and built on a downward slope. As rain falls, it collects into a carved channel, gradually flowing down into the hafir. Primo walks to the edge of the water and dips in a plastic bottle, filling it just over halfway with brownish rainwater.

“The hafirs are a problem,” Agok says. “The water has a color and a bad smell- this is why we suggest they use filters.”

Following this, Primo and Agok collect three other samples, one from a well where a nomadic family is gathering water one jerry can at a time, and two from filters in Magara. Returning to Renk with the samples collected, they continue to a surprisingly well-organized laboratory at the water- treatment facility at the edge of town, near the riverbank.

Over the next 45 minutes Agok and Primo carry out a variety of tests on the water samples from the hafir, the well, Mariam Adam’s, and Mohammed Ahmed’s house. Primo carefully spreads growth solution onto a Petri dish, placing a few drops of water inside. Agok, on the other side of the room, pours a sample of hafir water into a clear plastic tube, squinting at the top to measure the turbidity. A moment later he takes a small sample of water and pours it into a color-coded meter to measure the pH- walking to the door, he holds the device in the sunlight, looking carefully at the small numbers on the side measuring the water’s natural acidity. Finished with their tests, they note the results in Arabic on a worksheet, close the lab, and lock the door, knowing their work is a small, but meaningful, step in improving the lives of vulnerable people in their community."

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