by Pierre Béland and France Hurtubise
sanitation, the consumption of untreated water and the recurrence
of floods would present a major health hazard in any environment.
In most regions in China, they have led to a cycle of water-borne
China is known more for its rapidly expanding urban areas
than the vast rural regions that make up most of the country.
It is in these rural areas that water-borne diseases are widespread,
as improper sanitation and poor health practices are endangering
the health and well-being of the people living there. Government
figures estimate that 59 per cent of rural households do not
have any sanitation facilities. In Guangxi and Hunan provinces,
where the majority of people live in agricultural communities,
the incidence of typhoid fever and hepatitis A last year were
respectively two to ten times higher in these regions than
in the rest of China. The occurrence of tuberculosis, roundworms,
and liver fluke here is also among the highest in the country.
In 2002, extensive flooding ravaged several counties in
Guangxi. The resulting water contamination reached alarming
levels. It was in response to this disaster that the Red Cross
Society of China (RCSC) and the International Federation initiated
a sanitation project, with the objective of upgrading water
supply and human waste management, as well as the provision
of hygiene promotion and educational programmes.
Over a two-year period, the programme will build 17,400
sanitation facilities, and run health education programmes
in Guangxi and Hunan provinces. International Federation delegates
work closely with the local branches of the National Society
and, together, they recruit and train locally so that both
construction and health education aspects of the programme
are done within the beneficiary communities.
The Red Cross Society of China offers water
and sanitation courses for residents in Guangxi and Hunan
©France Hurtubise / International Federation
Hope and a dream
Zhang Wang Xing and her family is one of 320 living in Nadang
on an inland plateau in Guanxgi province. Until recently,
it was still a scene of devastation after last year's typhoon
had washed away most of the mud brick houses along with half
of the crops. Villagers are now rebuilding in concrete and
hard bricks through a government aid plan that covers up to
half the cost.
Zhang fills a pail of water from the brand new tap in front
of her house and points to her neighbour's: "There is
now a tap in front of each house, though we still need to
boil the water as it is not safe. We no longer have to walk
hours every day to the stream." Indicating a dark area
near the ruins of their old home, Zhang points to a new sanitation
Zhang is also a Red Cross volunteer. "I have been a
volunteer for two months," she says. "I go from
house to house discussing with people about washing their
hands after going to the toilet and before cooking meals.
I also give out health material and instruct them on the benefits
of brushing their teeth, cleaning their house, and boiling
water before drinking." At the edge of the village, there
is a new government-built rubbish disposal facility. In spite
of last year's catastrophe, and although an early summer drought
reduced this year's first harvest of rice, there are smiles
again in Nadang. Hope, and a dream: to find enough money to
use a spring high up in the blue mountains, to supply their
new taps with a safe drinking water supply.
The local Red Cross sanitation project in Hunan is just
beginning in the village of Haoping. At the village entrance,
a huge poster is nailed to a wall for all to see. It proclaims
the village's determination to improve health conditions,
and lists a number of simple habits and measures that everyone
can apply to their daily lives. "Wash your hands after
going to the toilet", "Boil water before drinking",
"It is your own health that is at stake". Several
people have already benefited from the programme, such as
Mong Qing Tai, 65, and his wife. They have 264 square metres
of rice, watermelon and vegetables. And a new sanitation facility.
"The facility is built right here in the village,"
In the village school's central yard, a middle-aged man
mixes sand and cement. He then fills the two baskets attached
to his shoulder pole, lifts them and, legs slightly bowed,
takes his heavy load inside. In a temporarily modified classroom,
two young villagers have finished lacing the inside of a mould
with steel rods. Together, the three pour in the fresh cement.
They are making the roof for a new Ecosan toilet. Through
the window overlooking the yard, there are 63 of these concrete
slabs with a hole to one side to receive the ventilation pipe
that will send fumes outside the house. Mong adds: "All
materials were obtained locally."
Last year, the Red Cross water and sanitation programme
successfully installed 3,900 sanitation facilities in 28 villages
of Guangxi province. In each village, teams have been formed
as Red Cross volunteers to convey basic health knowledge and
encourage practices that are consistent with the new equipment.
These are directly reaching 83,123 beneficiaries. In almost
every participating village, residents agree that the incidence
of diarrhoea, skin rash, and parasitic diseases was down.
By the end of 2003, a further 13,500 facilities will have
been installed in Guangxi and Hunan.
The programme has been such a success that many villages
are now contacting the Red Cross to become participants. In
a small village, Wuyi, near the capital of Guangxi province,
Nanning, the residents are hoping to take part in the programme.
Inhabited by Hans, who are the overwhelming ethnic majority
in China, the village boasts a meeting hall, and the know-how
to build whatever they need. The village authorities proudly
show a visitor the new concrete road snaking through their
community. "Before this was a muddy lane. The government
donated the cement and we built it ourselves," explains
one of the government officials. "This way, we can keep
our village and houses clean. We are planning to upgrade our
water supply system, and the new toilets and health education
programme would be the final element to complete our sanitary
renewal," he adds.
The Guangxi and Hunan branches of the Red Cross Society of
China have proven very capable of implementing the installation
of the dry hygienic toilets and providing health education.
In the words of Professor Fong, president of the Guangxi branch
of the RCSC: "The benefits of having a health education
component based on participation are that it encourages and
develops community participation and involvement in decision-making."
Furthermore, this endeavour prepares a niche for local branches
of the Red Cross Society of China to implement future programmes
at the community level.
"Very practical." This is invariably the first
answer given by beneficiaries when asked about the benefits
of the new facility. In a way, this may be the key to the
success of the programme. With such pragmatic people as the
Chinese farmer, that may in the end be the best guarantee
that the project will continue to grow. What is practical
always ends up being adopted. And, in this case, the health
benefits that come along with the Ecosan toilets are guaranteed
to spread and have a definite impact on improving the livelihoods
and health of thousands of hardworking farmers in southern
Pierre Béland and France Hurtubise
Pierre Béland is a freelance journalist. France Hurtubise
is International Federation regional information delegate based
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