WASH 101: H is for Hygiene

October 25, 2018

Posted by Amanda, Development Director

When I was a kid, I was mildly obsessed with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Then a few years ago, I was watching “The Avengers” and I learned something consciousness altering – there was another Olsen sister, and it was very possible that Elizabeth Olsen was the most talented Olsen.

Okay, Amanda. Thanks for sharing. But what in the world do the Olsen sisters have to do with WASH?

For years, people in the WASH sector have been mildly obsessed with Water and Sanitation. They are the Olsen twins of WASH. You can have debates about which one is the more important, but nothing will ever replace them. Since we are so deeply invested in either Water or Sanitation, we sometimes forget the “H” at the end of the acronym. But there is a third sister.  And that sister – Hygiene – may very well be the most important part.

So, what do we mean by “Hygiene”?  Hygiene is often summarized and measured as hand washing [and we’ll talk more about that below, because it is vitally important] … but more expansively, hygiene is all of the health training and behavior modification activities that support WASH efforts.

While it is a convenient story that technology solves the problems of access to clean water and sanitation, it’s more complicated than that. Take a 20 Liters Household Filter:

If you fill a jerry can with dirty water, put that water into a filter, and capture the clean, filtered water in that same jerry can – your water is dirty again.

If you backwash your filter with dirty water, your entire filter system is compromised.

If you filter your water into a clean, open container – things can fall into that water and insects can breed in that water and that water may not remain clean for long.

If you’re drinking clean water, but preparing or eating your food without washing your hands – you could still be ingesting bacteria that is going to make you sick.

These are all incredibly common issues. And they can’t readily be fixed by technology. They require community engagement and training to solve. [That’s why 20 Liters invests in training for all filter recipients and reinforces trainings with periodic home visits from volunteers.] These kinds of issues are the reason that hygiene is so vitally important to WASH.

Let’s come back to hand washing for a moment. Hand washing is the single-most important hygiene behavior for preventing the spread of bacteria and infection. So, when we talk about Sustainable Development Goals [learn more WASH 101: A Shared Language], we use hand washing as a measure of progress towards better hygiene in a community.

The baseline is difficult to measure, because many countries haven’t previously kept records on hand washing, but what we do know isn’t good. In 34 out of 38 African countries with data, less than 50% of the population used basic hand washing facilities in 2015. In Rwanda, where 20 Liters works, only 5% of the population has access to soap and a place to wash their hands. In comparison, over 75% of the population in Rwanda has a mobile phone. Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done to meet the needs of the communities we serve.

It can be really easy to get excited about the tangible pieces of WASH – filters, wells, rain water harvest systems, toilets, latrines – there are so many things that we can build or install that should just make it better, right? But the honest truth is that without hygiene – without community engagement and education – WASH can’t make a truly sustainable, lasting difference in communities.

Hygiene is the most important part, because education is what takes a few assembled pieces of hardware and turns them into a sustainable solution that can make a family and the community healthier.

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