“Ah…o say….! Ah oh…say! We will make sure water and sanitation issues are addressed on this campus!” yells Sarta S. Bawoh in her election battle cry as her followers answer “Say!”
Sarta, 18, is running for vice president of the student council of the G. W. Gibson High School in Monrovia. Her campaign issue is an unusual one here in Liberia where student politics usually focus on better tuition and lower fees. But Sarta insists the lack of clean water and sanitation facilities at her school is the biggest problem these students face.
“I am talking about water and sanitation because I know it will encourage students to come to school,” says Sarta as a large crowd of students gathers around her. “You cannot learn effectively and efficiently as you would wish in an environment where you have to leave classes to look for water to drink.”
Sarta’s demand has been echoed throughout Liberia by people desperate for improvement. Ten years after the devastating civil war, just 1 in 4 Liberians has access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. Half of all Liberians have no access to a toilet and use streams or open areas. Outbreaks of water-borne diseases like cholera occur regularly. As many as 1 in 5 deaths in Liberia are blamed on water and sanitation problems.
The government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made big public commitments to restoring water and sanitation during its 7 years in office. The latest, a two-year “Compact” inked in partnership with international and local groups, promised widespread improvements in the system. The two-year period is up next month, but government has missed the goals by a wide mark. A scathing report undertaken by the international NGO WaterAid and the UNDP accuses government of dragging its feet, meeting just 30 percent of commitments in the Compact. Government claims the number is closer to 60 percent.
Under the Compact the government undertook to work with local and international partners to deliver improvements in water and sanitation across the country. The report says coordination has improved but government has failed to deliver on almost every other Compact commitment, including those designed to establish accountable institutions to oversee improvements to the sector. These were supposed to ensure equality in the distribution of water and sanitation services in the country and address environmental concerns.
“In most cases the activities were not even started,” says Abdou Koroma, secretariat coordinator of the National Water, Sanitation Hygiene Promotion Committee at the Ministry of Public Works. “We realized that we had assigned particular roles to entities that were not even established."
Local organizations working in the area blame a lack of political will. President Johnson Sirleaf took 10 months just to sign off on the Compact. The minister in charge, Finance Minister Amara Konneh is stretched too thin, they say. His focus is taken up with what the minister and president see as a higher priority: the economy.
Revitalization of the energy sector and other areas that will drive foreign investment have received the lion’s share of development dollars.
“The way finances are been apportioned points to how those sectors are prioritized and then the development partners will follow that trend,” says Prince Kreplah, the head of a consortium of five civil society organizations working in the water and sanitation sector. “If we are to solve this problem of water and sanitation in a conclusive and sustainable manner, than we need giant political steps to be taken by the government.”
It’s not just civil society that’s frustrated by the executive’s failure to prioritize water and sanitation. Within government disgruntled staff are also critical.
”I believe that every sector is hungry for money,” says Koroma, of Public Works. “But if you give me electricity without safe water to drink you are telling me to drink dirty water and die. If you look at days lost by people who are coming down with water-borne diseases and you look at their lost contribution, that could be an economic boost.”
Even the spokesman for the Public Works Ministry joined the criticism.
“I think some of our policymakers have not understood when it comes to…the terms of reality that water is life, water is very important and that whatever resources we are going to put into (water and sanitation) issues is an investment in the health of our people” says Jeseful M. Kieta, director of communication at the Ministry of Public Works. “But it is also an investment in socio-economic development.”
Indeed, studies show poor water and sanitation are actually a break on economic development. In Liberia the cost is $17.5 million each year or 2 percent of GDP, according to a 2012 study carried out by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program. Open defecation costs Liberia $11 million – yet eliminating the practice would require fewer than 350,000 latrines to be built, according to the report.
Despite repeated requests, the Finance Ministry was unable to provide a comment for this story.
The connection between water and sanitation and other areas of the Liberia’s reconstruction effort are most obvious here in schools like Sarta’s. Generations went without an education during the two decades of political upheaval and war. Educating the next generation has been a priority for government and international partners. But Sarta says improvements in education cannot come without improvements in water and sanitation.
“If I don’t have (water) it means that whole day I will learn nothing because my focus will be, ‘How can I drink?’” says Sarta, sweating profusely in the equatorial Liberian sun as the crowd of students around her fan themselves with copy books. “Water is life,” she says. “You will not learn if you are very thirsty for hours.”
Sarta’s school had been connected to the partially restored public water system, but that supply can be dry for weeks at a time. Even when it runs, students and staff are afraid to drink the water because the pipes are older than the teachers and the water they provide looks and smells unclean.
Students who can afford it buy clean water in sachets sold by street vendors. Some students are spending up to 30 cents a day for water says Sarta. That adds up to an extra $36 a year on top of school fees. In a country where 84 percent of people live on $1.25 a day, that extra can mean the difference between going to school or not. Many choose not.
Others persevere without water or by drinking unsafe water from wells around the city. Neither is a good option says Abraham G. Weah, medical director of the private medical clinic, Medical Consultants Associates Inc. Drinking unsafe water risks life-threatening disease, he says, but going without water makes learning impossible.
“If the child does not drink for a day it reduces the child’s thinking ability,” says Weah. “The mind will be on thirst. If the child does not drink for a whole day it may lead to dehydration which is very bad medically.”
A survey by Kreplah’s consortium last November found just one in 10 schools had clean drinking water.
A lack of drinking water is one thing. The lack of access to clean restrooms is another.
The girls restrooms are Sarta’s school are all but unusable. Toilets are full with human waste; the floors are flooded with urine; the offensive odor of the bathrooms scares Sarta away. That poses a particular problem for girls, says Sarta.
“I can remember right after the Christmas break there was no water on campus and I was menstruating,” she says lowering her voice to an embarrassed whisper. “I was so embarrassed I had to lie that I was sick because I was ashamed to tell the principal and other lecturers that I was menstruating because they are men. I had to say I was sick so that they can allow me to go home.”
Sarta had to miss lessons for two days. This affects her education because she misses subjects like math, physics and chemistry. Those subjects are important to Sarta because she wants to become a petroleum engineer.
At the moment, Liberia is in the midst of its months-long dry season, making things even worse. Wells have dried up. The state-provided water system has been dry for three weeks. That’s put a huge burden on people here, particularly women and girls.
Sarta and many other girls like her have to fetch water every morning or late at night, costing them study time. Encouraging girls to go to school has been a much-trumpeted goal of the government, but as long as water is hard to come by many girls will be forced to stay home from school says Apollos Nwafor, team leader for WaterAid Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is the job of women and girls to make long treks in search of water each day.
“Let’s use the example of a girl child who wakes up at 5 o’clock in the morning because she has to go to school at 7.30,” says Nwafor. “Then she has to go and fetch water. I see that happen a lot when I go to visit rural communities. She takes a lot of time maybe to go and get three buckets of water because she has to go back and forth. By the time she is done it’s late.”
Government and local water and sanitation advocates are far apart on even agreeing which commitments in the Compact have been delivered. Government disputes The Water Aid/UNDP report’s assessment that only 30 percent have been completed, claiming the figure is actually 60 percent.
One of the deliverables required by the Compact was the inclusion of lessons on good water and sanitation practices in the school curriculum. The Ministry of Education insists that has happened, but here at Sarta’s school, just 5 minutes drive from the Ministry building, Principal Z. Abraham Gardour, tells a very different story.
“No, (water and sanitation) is not being taught in school,” says Gardour. “The curriculum was prepared before that promise was made. When the Education Ministry delivers on that and finds a teacher, it will be good. It is important because we want the students to know how to manage water. Not only that, (water and sanitation) education will teach them how to take care of themselves.”
Back at the school Sarta returns from her lunchtime campaigning to math class. She looks at the blackboard and copies the teacher’s chalk writings into her notebook. She says she’ll return to the stump every day until election day, repeating her message that clean water and sanitation are a basic human right. They are, she insists, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Liberia’s future.
Tecee Boley is a fellow of New Narratives, a media development NGO, which provided financial support and editorial oversight for this report in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center.