YAOUNDÉ, October 9, 2017‒The month of September usually signals the end of school vacations and the beginning of the new school year for children. But for the residents of the Far North Region, September 2017 has been one of the deadliest months of the year, with a record number of victims due to attacks by the terrorist sect, Boko Haram. In a region that, along with the North, is home to nearly 56% of the poor population of Cameroon, this insecurity heightens the precariousness of households that lack practically everything, particularly access to quality sanitation, hospital, or school infrastructure. The first victims of this situation are women and children, especially in schools where the dearth of sanitary facilities inhibits young girls’ attendance.
Health, education, and sanitation are closely related factors of development. In 2015, the World Health Organization calculated that the number of deaths from water-borne diseases directly attributable to the lack of water, sanitation facilities, and hygiene stood at 14,000. And stunting resulting from these diseases has significant and long-lasting negative effects on early childhood development, impeding physiological and mental development.
In the village of Seradoumda, one of the villages in the commune of Mora, the capital of the Department of Mayo-Sava, the pilot sanitation project, SANCAM (Sanitation Project for Cameroon), financed by the World Bank, brings a glimmer of hope to the children of this community.
It is 10 o'clock in the morning, and outdoor temperatures have already reached 33 degrees. In the Seradoumda public school, recess has begun. A noisy stream of schoolchildren run out of the classrooms. While a group of students gather in the yard to play, others head for the toilets, which the school has just acquired. With the help of the teachers, Bara Seini, the principal, scrupulously ensures that students comply with the hygiene rules established: wash your hands after using the toilets, use only the toilets provided on the school premises, and do not defecate in the open air. The goal? Instill good hygiene among these students and reduce the practice of open air defecation, which increases the transmission of water-borne diseases, such as diarrhea or cholera, by contaminating the water.
Considering that less than 40% of primary schools in Cameroon have toilets, the construction of these new facilities is a boon to the school of Seradoumda. In addition to a block of six latrines (three for girls and three for boys) equipped with a ramp for access by children with disabilities, the school has also benefited from the construction of a borehole with a flow rate of 4.5 m3 of water per hour and a 500-liter drinking water reserve.
“Before the implementation of these works, we had a fairly high rate of absenteeism at our school. As we had neither drinking water nor toilets, we had to introduce two 15-minute breaks in the morning to let children go home to drink water and relieve themselves,” says the principal. "But generally, 70% of students wouldn’t return to class after the second break. Today, the children can drink water on site and have access to working toilets. We only have one break for recess at 10 a.m. and absenteeism has dropped from 70% to 5%.”
The living conditions of the residents of Seradoumda have improved in recent years owing to these various works. The village has become more attractive and hosted more than 100 new families coming from communities that are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In the last census, the children of displaced families represented 11% of the public school population.
“This sanitation project indirectly affects different sectors: education, by promoting the schooling of children in disadvantaged rural areas; health, through learning the rules of hygiene and the use of water; and also to some extent social protection, by supporting communes that welcome displaced persons or refugees,” says Elisabeth Huybens, World Bank Country Director for Cameroon. “Our multisectoral approach aims to better address the challenges of poverty and fragility in the poorest region of Cameroon.”
In 2012, only 45% of Cameroon's population had access to adequate sanitation facilities. In rural areas, 54% of the population could only access unsanitary latrines and 12% still practiced open air defecation. To remedy this situation, the Ministry of Water and Energy implemented the SANCAM project in 2012, with financial and technical support from the World Bank, to improve access to sanitation services by adopting a pilot approach in several areas, mainly in the Far North Region and the city of Douala.
In the commune of Mora alone, the project will have helped build 26 wells, 29 blocks of latrines in public schools, and 11 two-latrine blocks in health centers. It will also have trained more than 50 young people in masonry. All of these accomplishments directly benefit more than 100,000 people, including many women and young people.
The goal now is to sustain all these achievements over the long term. “We created a management committee so that residents can ensure the maintenance and sustainability of the sanitation and drinking water facilities,” explains Charles Delfieux, task team leader and water supply and sanitation specialist. “This committee also ensures that good hygiene practices are adopted. Furthermore, it collects funds from households to pay for maintenance and manages the organization of timetables for use of the new infrastructure among residents.”
Drawing lessons from this pilot approach developed by the SANCAM project and the difficulties encountered in its implementation, the Ministry of Water and Energy has developed a methodology to sustainably improve hygiene practices and access to sanitation in rural areas.