Diarrhoea kills more children than HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined – and its main cause is food and water contaminated with human waste. Liberia’s president is trying to change all that, writes Rose George in The Guardian.
The author of the sanitation best seller “The Big Necessity” gets to interview to Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, ” the only serving head of state to have written in a major newspaper about the need for toilets”.
Sirleaf took a while to understand the place of good sanitation. Like countless Liberians, she grew up on the family farm, where the only toilet was the bush. “It came naturally,” she says, when I double-check that the president has just admitted to open defecation – or, as Liberians say, doing poo-poo in the bush. “That was what it was.”
Like the six out of seven Liberians who still do the same thing, or the 2.6 billion worldwide who have no toilet, Sirleaf didn’t see what was wrong with it. All that forest: what harm can a little poo-poo do? Now she knows better. She knows that diarrhoea – caused largely by people ingesting water or food contaminated by human waste – kills more children worldwide than HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
Only when she looked into why so many Liberian women were dying in childbirth, and why children were dying of something as banal as the squits, did she realise “there is a relationship with water and sanitation. I needed to understand why that was so, and partly it’s because people don’t have access to clean water. That was an eye-opener for us.”
Rose George asks Sirleaf why sanitation, compared to water supply, is receiving so little attention from both donors and communities. The Liberian president answers:
“People say they want health clinics,” she says, “but they don’t ask for sanitation. They say their children get malaria or dysentery, but they don’t ask for sanitation. We have to bring to their consciousness that sanitation is linked to health.”
Read the full Guardian article published on 3 February 2012.