Back to school: Improving water and sanitation facilities in Ebola hit countries

Disasters, Health, Humanitarian, Water

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is not over yet, but as the number of new cases of the disease has reduced, schools have re-opened. Here Thuli Ndlovu, Ebola response communications officer, explains how and why Oxfam is working to improve water and sanitation facilities in schools in Sierra Leone and Liberia. 

Schools in Sierra Leone have been closed for 8 months because of the Ebola outbreak. It is important that schools re-open and parents, teachers and children are all keen to get back to school, mindful that children have been out of education for a long time. The Government decided that as of 14 April, the school system should be up and running again.

Many of the buildings were used as community care centres (CCC’s) for Ebola screeningMany of the buildings were used as community care centres (CCC’s) for Ebola screening, and now the process of decommissioning these and preparing them for use as schools again has begun.

There is concern however among some communities that the schools are not safe to go into because some had Ebola patients in them. There are also concerns that schools do not have adequate water and sanitation facilities. There are not enough hand washing stations, there are very few latrines, and those that do exist are run down. 

There is a fear that schools may inadvertently be a place where disease might spread. Research conducted by Oxfam earlier this year showed that many people were keen that schools be re-opened only after the country had been declared Ebola free.

For example, 10 year old Aminata told Oxfam researchers:

‘I am happy to go back to school. I want to go back to school because I am motivated when I see women who are educated, a lot of NGOs came into this village and I see only educated women work for them, but I am also scared that my friends might get infected by Ebola because the CCC was built on my school.’ 

There are still on average 2.5 Ebola cases per day in Sierra Leone (as at 26 April 2015). The National Ebola Response Committee (NERC) has stated that schools which have not been decommissioned effectively should not be re-opened. They are monitoring the situation closely. There was a slow start to pupils returning to school though numbers are starting to increase now.  

According to Marie Soboniekeh-Sesay, the Acting Principal at Kabala Secondary school for girls:

‘This school is more than safe, however people in this community are scared to bring their children back to school, because this school was used as a holding centre. No-one tested positive on this site but because of their perception of Ebola they will not bring their children to school.’ 

In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf strongly supports the installation of water and sanitation facilities in schools. She invited Oxfam to co-host a meeting at the High Level Conference on Ebola in Brussels, on 3 March 2015 to advocate for more donor support so that every school would have clean water and effective sanitation. Our technical brief provides detailed evidence and data on the current needs for services and
investment in school facilities.

We are constructing hand washing facilities and water points in 135 schools in Liberia. We are constructing hand washing facilities and water points in 135 schools in Liberia. Oxfam has put in place community structures to ensure effective upkeep of these facilities, including setting up water and sanitation committees and school hygiene clubs, as well as training teachers and pupils on maintenance of the facilities.

Back in Sierra Leone, in February, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology issued guidelines as to what water and sanitation conditions were needed in a school on re-opening. These state that there must be hand washing stations, water and soap, child-friendly and gender segregated sanitation facilities. Many schools do not have these facilities, however, and students will be forced to resort to open defecation. 

Oxfam has been working towards getting schools re-opened safely in Sierra Leone by decontaminating and decommissioning some of the CCC’s it constructed. Overall we’ve worked in 22 schools so far. In Koinadugu Oxfam has decontaminated 15 schools and decommissioned three. Oxfam has constructed a latrine, replaced furniture and repaired floors. In Port Loko, Oxfam has decommissioned two CCC’s and installed a latrine and water pump into the school. In Freetown Oxfam has constructed a block of six latrines for a school. 

Throughout the Ebola response Oxfam has worked to ensure there is adequate water and chlorine for disinfection and to repair water systems to ensure they are running effectively. 

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1. Teacher Moses A. Tholley sits in a classroom on the outskirts of Freetown. Mr Tholley and the other teachers are forced to carry water from the river on their heads. Oxfam is in the process of building a water pump for the nearby community. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

2. First day at school, Kabala Secondary School for Girls. Credit: Thuli Ndlovu/Oxfam

Author: Thuli Ndlovu
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.