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Freetown WASH consortium

Volunteer Theresa Kamara leads a community workshop (Credit: Tommy Trenchard/ Oxfam)

At a glance

Providing access to safe WASH services in Freetown, and building government capacity for innovative and sustainable solutions.

Overview

The Oxfam-led  Freetown WASH Consortium aims to increase low-income communities' access to safe and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH), and improve the health of the most vulnerable people.  The programme focuses on: supporting and building the capacity of the Government of Sierra Leone; delivering WASH facilities; implementing Disaster Risk Reduction measures; and advocating pro-poor services and increased sector financing.

The consortium programme contributes to improvements in people's health through specific pro-poor WASH interventions that are aligned to the Government of Sierra Leone's 24-month Post-Ebola Recovery Plan. The first two phases of the programme took place between January 2010 and September 2016. The third phase takes place from October 2016 to March 2019. The third phase is undertaken with Action Contre La Faim, Concern Worldwide and Save the Children and aims to reach 987,500 people in urban and rural areas of Freetown.

Our approach

The Freetown WASH Consortium Programme is considered a 'go to' programme for the critical role it has played in minimizing diseases. It has shown an impressive ability to evolve and adapt to the changing context (and to deliver humanitarian and development activities simultaneously. In the challenging urban WASH context, the Consortium has been able to implement some highly effective emergency response operations such as the running of mass hygiene promotion campaigns through trained Community Health Workers.

The Consortium has taken an innovative approach, for example instigating new techniques under a Behaviour Change Communication Strategy and a Faecal Sludge Management pilot, together with pilots in sanitation marketing and household water treatment. A successful door-to-door solid waste collection model that the Consortium piloted in technical collaboration with MASADA has been adopted by the government for replication in all urban and some rural areas of Freetown. The Consortium helps to build sustainable community and government owned activities. This includes building the capacity of various community-level structures, such as Community Health Workers, youth groups and water facility governance structures, to ensure the sustainability of results.

Working through partnerships

The Freetown WASH Consortium is comprised of four international organizations: Oxfam (the lead agency), Action Contra la Faim, Save the Children and Concern Worldwide. Combining their strength, experience and wide range of expertise in the WASH sector enables the Consortium to influence the government's policies and priorities on WASH, as well as to provide services in many areas of Freetown through a co-delivery approach with Freetown City Council. The Consortium's diverse partnerships with national institutions, the private sector and local civil society organizations enables it to influence sector issues and financing. Its work setting up and training Water Management Committees and Community Health Workers became vital during the Ebola outbreak. The programme also works in partnership with the private sector (MASADA) and youth groups who aim to improve sanitation in Freetown, especially in slum communities.

WASH, health & Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking towards the bottom of the Human Development Index (181/188 in 2015); it also has one of the highest child mortality rates, at 161 deaths for every 1,000 children born. More than 14% of these deaths are due to diarrhoea. This is partly as a result of inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, which was also largely responsible for a series of cholera outbreaks between 2006 and 2012. In 2014, when Ebola hit Sierra Leone, poor WASH infrastructure combined with unsafe hygiene practices exposed health workers, patients and wider communities to the virus and probably contributed to its spread.

Although it is estimated that 85% of the urban population has access to potable water, this figure hides important disparities between the richest and the poorest neighbourhoods. In Freetown, one of the fastest-growing cities in West Africa, uncontrolled urbanization presents major challenges for the main service provider, Guma Valley Water Company. More than 96% of the water it supplies is from the Guma Dam, which was built in 1960s to serve a maximum of 300,000 people. With the current population estimated at 1.5 million, and high water losses (45-50%)  due to the ageing and badly maintained network system and illegal connections, the centralized water supply system is unable to meet public, commercial and industrial demand. The situation is compounded by leakage of wastewater from a poor sanitation system, encroachment of people in the watershed, and climate variability.

More than one-third of the population (>500,000 people) live in areas that are not fully covered by the Guma Valley Water Company supply network; they are highly dependent on small, decentralized water supply systems that account for less than 4% of the total supply. The functions, ownership, roles and responsibilities of community-based water management groups and formal institutions are still unclear. This has been an impediment to good governance around the decentralized facilities, as demonstrated by lack of regulation, poor management, and poor upkeep of the facilities and the hygiene around them. There is currently no effective regulation of urban water sector, beside the requirements of the governing board of sector agencies and sector organization.

Only 23% of the urban population have access to improved sanitation. In 2013, the council contracted a private company, MASADA, to manage the city's solid waste collection and disposal, but this has insufficient capacity. This has resulted in indiscriminate dumping which contributed to the blockage of drainage channels in parts of the city, leading to increased flooding, as in September 2015. Of the sludge that is removed from toilets, only 27% is disposed of in Kingtom, the only official sludge-disposal site in Freetown. However, these treatment facilities have not been maintained, so untreated sludge spills into a series of creeks that run through informal slums and into the sea. Good hygiene practices are not widespread; many families remain unaware of the importance of hand washing, and soap is often unavailable. According to the World Health Organisation, poor WASH environments are responsible for 88% of all cases of diarrhoea. While building WASH infrastructure takes time and financial investment, hygiene promotion can be implemented at a relatively low cost and with good results: it is estimated that hand washing with soap can reduce diarrhoeal disease prevalence by 35%.

Public duty bearers' capacity to detect, prepare for and respond to emergencies remains weak, as observed during the Ebola outbreak and the 2015 flood response. Ebola claimed more than 3,500 lives, including those of 200 healthcare workers. The impact on the economy has been catastrophic, the healthcare system almost collapsed, and schools closed for almost a year. Concerns about the safety of health facilities led to an estimated 70% drop in clinical admissions, a drop in routine immunizations, and a marked increase in maternal and infant mortality. To put the country's economy back on track, the government has designed a National Ebola Response strategy, and identified recovery priorities in key sectors including WASH.

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