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close this bookFood, Water and Family Health: A Manual for Community Educators (UNDP - WHO, 1994, 108 p.)
close this folderUnit 1: Healthy water and better sanitation
View the documentThe problems we have with water
View the documentWays to keep our water supply safe
View the documentGolden rules for safe water
View the documentImproving our environment ourselves
View the documentThe water committee
View the documentWays to make drinking water safer
View the documentLatrines

The problems we have with water

We have many problems with water. At times we have too much, but often we do not have enough. Let’s go for a walk together around our community and look at the problems we have with water. Maybe together we can find some solutions.

Getting water takes up a lot of time and energy. Usually water has to be carried a long way by women and young girls. Most of our water comes from small ponds, from streams and from the river. We also have open wells.

Our drinking water is not clean. It may look good, but if you “watch water” you will know it is not clean. “Watching water” means learning about where water comes from, how it is handled and where it goes.

In some places you will find open drains, and puddles filled with dirty water and faeces. We all want to be able to defecate in privacy. We must also remember that faeces in and near the community make life unhealthy, unsafe, and uncomfortable.


A few families have flimsy latrines, close to their homes. These latrines often collapse. They always smell because of the mounds of faeces lying on the ground.

Flies buzz around faeces passed by children who are too young to go into the bush, or who are afraid of flimsy latrines. Most adults believe that children’s faeces outside our homes are harmless, and it is hard to always clean up after them. But even the faeces of very young children can be dangerous and must be disposed of carefully.

Much of the mess in and around the community is washed into our water. At different times of the day we can see people urinating and defecating in or near our ponds, streams, and wells.

Our ancestors warned against defecating or urinating near water. We have forgotten their wisdom.

Our community is crowded now and so even more faeces get into the water. We can see broken water pumps, standpipes and abandoned latrines which were built years ago.

We collect water, drink and bathe alongside our animals. But do we really have any other choice?

During our walk we may see people who are sick from diseases caused by unclean water. Diarrhoea is very common and especially dangerous for young children. Often we have to rush them to the health centre. Many are saved. Some die.

Other diseases caused by unclean water and bad sanitation include cholera, typhoid, dysentery and bilharzia. Mosquitos which breed in puddles, borrow pits, open drains, slow moving streams, and ponds cause malaria, dengue fever, and other diseases.

But it isn’t just dirty water that causes problems. Malaria mosquitos especially like less polluted water. Another problem are worms that enter the body from water, food and faeces on the ground.


Take water-watching walks together in small groups of neighbours, students, members of community groups, water committees, or cooperatives.

Make a map of your community showing all sources of water, houses, and other places important to you.

On the map locate places where there is too much or too little water. Mark clean and unclean areas in different colours.

You can use the map in planning for safe water and sanitation in your community.


What would you like to change about how your family gets drinking water?

What does clean water look like? What does it taste like?

Do you or members of your family often have to drink unclean water? What can you do to make it clean?


Ways to keep our water supply safe

We often complain about living in an unlucky community. Diarrhoea is common. We feel weak. Flies and mosquitos bother us. Hearing our complaints my neighbour said, “Our luck will change when we protect our water and, as clever women, use it wisely.”

Someone laughed saying, “Clean water! What does clean water have to do with children having diarrhoea? I know people with tubewells whose children still get sick.”

Another woman agreed. “I visited my sister last month. Her children are strong and healthy. They haven’t been sick with diarrhoea for years. The people in her village do seem better off. They have wells close to their homes, and clean water.”

My neighbour answered, “No matter where you get your water, it is necessary to keep it clean.” She goes to classes and has learnt to read.


She read to us from a book about making water safe:

“All living things need water; ourselves, our children, the animals we raise, and the plants we grow. Good use of water keeps our families healthy, provides nourishing food, saves us money and earns cash.

Faeces and urine get into rivers, streams, ponds and swamps. Dirty water is dangerous. Each year many people in our country die from diseases spread by water.

To stay healthy it is necessary to drink water from safe and protected sources. Even though the water is flowing and looks clear it can contain very small harmful germs too tiny to see without a microscope. These germs cause diarrhoea, jaundice, dysentery, cholera and other diseases.”

This is what some of the germs look like under a microscope,” she said pointing to a picture with a lot of little circles and dots.

“It is harder to imagine what germs look like than to understand what we can do to get rid of them.”

My neighbour finished reading with the words,

“Wise women and their families look after water in the ground, at the well or standpipe, on the way to the house, and in the home.”

“Both children and water have accidents if we don’t protect them,” she told us. “We rush around keeping our little ones from serious mischief. Water too needs care or germs will make it unsafe to drink.”

“So that’s why my sister always stores her water in clean covered containers!” said one young woman.


Design a puzzle or game maze showing the complicated path to safe water.

Your game should show that the path to safe water requires organization, material, knowledge and change in attitudes.

Act out the different ways men, women and children use and treat water in your community.


How are knowledge, attitudes and materials important in creating a healthy environment?

How can your group or class help improve the health of your community?

What role does the government or voluntary agency have to play?

Who should pay for clean water and sanitation?


Golden rules for safe water

We looked at pictures in a book about safe water. We saw women in fine clothes pulling the handles of new tubewells. Water was gushing out.

“A nice dream but that wouldn’t work here,” someone said. “The tubewells here have been broken for years.”

“Isn’t there any way we could protect our water?” my neighbour asked. “Perhaps we need to make some rules for protecting our water.”

After some discussion we agreed on five golden rules for safe water.

Golden rules for safe water

1. No one should defecate or urinate near or in a source of drinking or bathing water.

2. Keep animals away from water collection areas.

3. Water for drinking must always be boiled or chlorinated, and covered against flies and dust. Germs causing diarrhoea will be killed or inactivated when water begins boiling rapidly, or when it is chlorinated. If the water is very cloudy it should be filtered before chlorination.

4. Keep drinking water in a clean container. Be sure hands do not touch the water inside. Cover the container to keep water free from insects and dust. Clean the container and change the water regularly.

5. Always wash hands with water and soap or ash before preparing food, eating or feeding little children, and after defecating or handling the waste of children or people who are sick.

Someone said, “We need an Extra Special Rule.” So we added another.

The Extra Special Rule is:

Show love and care for your family and neighbours by building latrines, by using them, and by keeping them clean.

“Rules 1 and 2 are more difficult to keep,” a friend said, “because they need everyone to cooperate.”

“How can we get everyone to join in to make our water safer?” we wondered.

“We can,” my neighbour replied, “Everyone has to drink!”


Have local artists and students design posters to explain Golden Rule messages.

Make up a play or story about one or more rules.

Write a popular song about clean water and sanitation in your community.


Improving our environment ourselves

We now have real support in the community for clean water. Many groups are involved. Students and teachers, women’s clubs, cooperatives, health workers, religious leaders, a development organization (sometimes called an “NGO”), and even artists and entertainers support the Golden Rules.

In the beginning it was difficult for people to see how much we all depend on one another for better health.

Some, who could afford clean water and latrines for themselves, showed little interest. Others said they were too poor to get involved.

Now we have a large map showing our water and problems. We have drawings of tubewell sites. People often study the pictures on the map and discuss them.


The water user’s group

Our new water user’s group is eligible for tubewell supplies and help in building latrines. The group set up a bank account and then collected money to pay for local contractors and materials.

We had meetings about sites for new wells, and we talked about how many families should use each well. We learned about several different schemes for paying for wells and latrines, and we hired well attendants.

We organized a meeting. The health worker brought a film and we helped to attract a large crowd. The film showed how the members of a family became ill when they drank dirty water:

A young man became ill because someone defecated up-stream from where he drank water. He became ill but did not use soap or clean ash to wash his hands.

He took water from an open jar with a cup and his hands entered his family’s drinking water.

Soon his children and wife became ill from drinking that water. They defecated in nearby bushes.

Flies carried the faeces to uncovered food at a nearby home.

Later other members of the family became ill and passed their illness on to their neighbours.

Later we saw how the community really changed. People organized to build tubewells or stand-pipes near their homes.

They learned how to repair them and make good use of the water. The water running off the wells didn’t collect in puddles, instead it flowed into nearby gardens.

Local women, not too different from ourselves, were shown fixing the tubewell. One of the women explained that in the past, broken wells were a big problem. Now tubewells are designed so that local women as well as men can repair and maintain them.

People also dug latrines and bought slabs for them. They built the latrines away from water sources at a safe distance from their homes. They cleaned the latrines and always washed their hands with water and soap or ash after using them.

Some people built ‘VIP latrines”- latrines with ventpipes to remove bad odours and trap flies.

Others who couldn’t build ventilated latrines used wooden covers to keep flies out of the latrine holes.

After seeing the film, a group of actors and singers created their own plays and songs about safe drinking water and disposal of faeces.


Could your community organize a meeting like this?

If you don’t have a film, could local artists write and perform a play?

Take a message and use it to make up a song in folk or popular styles.

Ask local artists and students to design posters to explain any of the Golden Rules.


Think of ways people can work together to help pay the cost of latrines and tubewells.

What is the cost of not using latrines or clean water from wells or standpipes?

Who is or should be on your local water committee?

Discuss your reasons for choosing these people.

The water committee

We set up a water committee to decide where to dig new wells. The committee discussed the kinds of wells we needed for home use, and for growing crops and raising animals. A training programme on water and sanitation had been arranged in a nearby community. Several members of our water committee attended the training.

We knew it would cost money to build wells, but we really wanted to put an end to diarrhoea and other diseases. We collected money and opened a bank account. We used this money to pay people to work as well attendants, and for the spare parts for the well which we would need to buy in the future.


The committee chose two women and one man to be trained as well attendants. The three well attendants now maintain and replace all parts of the pump.

The well attendants check the wells every day. They must:

1. Remove mud and rubbish from around the well
2. Check to see that water easily drains away from the pump into drain pits or gardens
3. Check the fences around the well to keep animals away
4. Keep children from playing around wells
5. Check to see that the pumps are working
6. Replace worn-out parts

They can also play a special role in educating the community in ways of making and keeping water safe. They can motivate people to keep the community water supply safe and make their environment a nicer place to live.

We use well water for cooking and growing food. We also decided to collect well water and use the run-off from wells to provide water for community and school gardens.

Our wells are surrounded by concrete aprons. The aprons prevent dirty water from seeping back through the ground into the supply of clean water. Our concrete drains are kept clear of dirt and rubbish so that water can flow easily into the gardens. It is important that water easily drains because puddles near the well become breeding grounds for mosquitos. Standing water and mud around wells are slippery, dirty, and dangerous.

Checklist for getting and maintaining tubewells

1. Set up a water committee
2. Collect money and deposit it in a bank account
3. Hire a good contractor and provide labour for digging wells
4. Install pumps
5. Build a concrete platform with a drain
6. Make a fence around the well
7. Hire and train local men and women to work as well attendants

Ways to make drinking water safer

“If your water is not clean, boiling and chlorination are the best way to make it safe,” the health worker told us.



“But the Golden Rule about boiling water isn’t clear to some of us. How long do we have to boil water to make it safe?” we asked.

The health worker answered, “In the past we were told to boil water for a long time. Now we know that the germs which cause diarrhoea and other diseases are killed or inactivated by boiling the water strongly for one minute.”

“Then boiling water really isn’t so much trouble,” said one mother.

“No, boiling water is not much trouble,” said the health worker. “But remember that when you have made your water safe, you must keep it safe.”

“After boiling, store water in clean, covered containers, away from dirt and germs. Don’t forget that dirty hands make boiled water dirty again. Use a dipper to take water from the container,” she reminded us.

Most of us now store boiled water in clean, covered containers. Children quickly picked up a catchy tune which some students wrote about keeping hands out of drinking water.

You can pour water from a jug
or dip in with a ladle.
You can store water
in a jerry can,
or inside a gourd.

Dirty hands ruin our water.
Keep your drink clean
with a lid.
Do what you ought to
or you’ll feel very, very sick.


“My sister says that in her village they make their water safe by adding a special chemical,” said a woman whose children had recently been sick after drinking dirty water.

She had been listening carefully to the discussion about ways of making water safe.

“Yes, this is called chlorination. It can be a good way of getting safe water for drinking and washing,” the health worker explained.

“Chlorination is the mixing of a chemical called chlorine with water, in order to disinfect the water.

“Sometimes government authorities chlorinate the water for a whole town or district.

“But it is also possible for people whose water is not safe to chlorinate the water they need.

“Products for chlorinating water are available in nearly every area.

“Sometimes the product is sold or distributed as a powder; sometimes it comes in the form of tablets or drops.

“Whatever kind of product you use, be careful to read the instructions about how to use it.”

The health worker then said that if we were unsure about how to chlorinate water, we could ask for advice from the person in our community who is responsible for water supply and sanitation.


Other ways to make drinking water safer

“What if we cannot find enough fuel to burn to boil our water and we do not have the chemicals we need to chlorinate the water?” asked one woman.

“Water can also be made safer to drink by using a good filtration system, built by the community, such as slow sand filtration,” replied the health worker.

“If our community cannot build this kind of filtration system and boiling or chlorination are not possible, there are some ways of making water safer. These include the “two pots” method and using sunlight.

“It is better to use these other methods than no method at all, but they are not nearly as good as boiling or chlorination.

“We should boil or chlorinate water if it is at all possible, and remember that other methods do not make water completely safe. Also remember that even water which has been made clean can get dirty again.

So always get water from the cleanest possible source, keep it in a clean covered container, and keep hands out of the water.”


Making water safer by filtration

“I have heard that one way of making sure that our families have a supply of safer water is to build a water filter,” said an enthusiastic young man.

“I read a book about water filters,” said one of our community elders.

“It is true that a well-built water filter can make water much cleaner,” said the elder, “but we must remember that if there is cholera in our area only boiling and chlorination are really effective ways of obtaining safe water.”

He then explained how to build a water filter.

· Get a barrel or any other container that is at least 1 metre deep. Remove the top of the container (if it has one). Scrub and clean it inside and outside. Fix a tap to the bottom of the container, if possible by welding. Place the container on bricks or stones so that you can fit a pail or jug underneath the tap to catch the water.


· Next get some round stones, about 2-4 cm in diameter, and place them in the container around the opening where the tap has been put. Place the stones in such a way that the opening to the tap is not blocked off completely.


Now get some gravel or stones about the size and shape of peas (about 0.5-1 cm in diameter). Put a layer of these, 15-20 cm deep, in the bottom of the container so that the stones around the tap inlet are covered.


· Add a layer of fine sand 50 cm deep. You can put flat rocks on top of the sand to stop it from being stirred up in the water.

Keep the filter covered and full of water (up to 2-3 cm from the top). When after 2-4 weeks the water starts to flow slowly the filter needs cleaning. Clean the filter by scraping off the top layer of sand. After four or five cleanings you will need to add more sand. To do this you will need to drain out the water until the water level is 10 cm below the level of the sand.

The old man reminded us that wherever guinea worm (also called dracunculiasis) is a problem the water must first be filtered through a simple linen cloth, or through a special nylon gauze distributed for this purpose. (See the Guinea Worm unit)

Making water safer using two pots

You can make water safer by letting it stand for two days inside a pot.

The two-pot method can provide cleaner water for drinking and cooking, but remember that boiling or chlorination are much better ways to make water safer.


What you need:

Two pots


· First day
Begin by filling a large pot with water. Cover the opening and let it stand for 3 days.

· Second and third days
Dirt and germs in the water will begin to settle at the bottom of the pot.

· Fourth day
Carefully pour or scoop off the clean water at the top of the pot and put it into the second pot. Empty the dirty water onto your garden or at the base of the trees growing near your house. Carefully wash the pot, fill it with water and cover it again.

Remember: If you live in an area where guinea worm is a problem, you must filter the water through linen cloth or fine nylon gauze before pouring it into the pots.

Making water safer using sunlight

“We can use the sun to get rid of harmful germs in our water,” said the school teacher. “This is not the best method of making water safer, but it can be used if no better method is possible,” he told us. Then he explained how the method works.

What you need:

You need colourless or light blue glass or clear plastic containers. You should be able to see through any container you use.



· Remove any labels or paper from bottles. Collect water from the well or source. Fill the bottles with clear water. Cover them to keep dirt and insects out.

· Put the bottles in an open space where the sun can shine on them all day. Spread the containers to keep them from shading one another. The bottles should stay in the sun for at least five hours.

If you need the water as soon as possible, a couple of hours in the middle of the day when the sun is strongest will be make the water safer for drinking.

· Use the water which has been cleaned by the sun straight away - if you leave it to stand around, the germs could come back.

Remember: You cannot use this method on cloudy days. Whenever possible, boiling or chlorination are much better methods of making water safer.


We marked on a map the places where people now defecate. Many men go close to the river early in the morning.

Women usually go outside, behind vegetation, for privacy; some use homemade latrines.

Children go all over the place!

Flies feast on faeces and then land on our food.

We have to build latrines and use them properly to keep flies away from human faeces.

This will protect our drinking and bathing water from faeces causing diarrhoea, dysentery, worms, cholera, typhoid and bilharzia.

Always remember to wash hands with soap and water or ash after using a latrine.

Privacy is another important reason why people like latrines. When properly used, latrines provide privacy and many health advantages.

We organized a meeting to discuss latrines. Here are some of the things that we decided to do to improve our community:

“Using latrines keeps the village clean and safe from many diseases. But if the latrine is close to wells or water sources it will pollute them,” a neighbour explained. “Be certain to build the latrines at least fifty paces from any water source,” a woman said.

“This means fifty paces from wells, from the river, or the ponds. A latrine should be at least twenty paces from any house,” she added.

“Keep soap, ash and clean water near the latrine so you can always wash hands after use,” a young man suggested.

“Young children are often afraid to use the latrine. Clean up after them and drop their faeces down the latrine. Teach them how to use the latrine and help them not to be afraid of it,” another neighbour reminded us.

“Sweeping the latrine keeps flies away,” he continued. “I often sprinkle ash on the floor before sweeping to help pick up dirt and keep the latrine dry.”

“I worked hard to dig and build the latrine. By keeping the latrine clean, I know my family will use it,” he said.

The man told us about a latrine with a pipe to remove bad odours.

He said that this kind of latrine is called a Ventilated Improved Latrine (VIP Latrine).



“For other types of latrines, a cover will reduce smells and keep flies away,” he explained.

When we are working in the fields or away from home it is not always possible to use a latrine,” the school teacher reminded us.

“Please bury the faeces with soil to keep flies and animals away.”

“Of course we must follow the first golden rule,” we all joined in. “No one should defecate or urinate in or near a source of drinking or bathing water.”


Use a map to show how far tubewells and latrines should be from each other.


Are faeces a problem in or near your home, school or where you work?

Why do people like or dislike latrines?

· Are they too expensive to build?
· Do they smell bad?
· Are they dirty or dangerous?

Unit 1: Healthy water and better sanitation

· Clean water is linked to good health.

· Water should be kept clean and the Golden Rules for safe water tell us how.

· People in our villages should avoid defecating or urinating in water.

· Latrines are the best place for defecation. We can work together to build the kind of latrines we need and can afford.

· If we group together, we can improve the environment in which we live.