On the blog

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Pain in the neck?

Feeling the weight of water in South Sudan.  Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

‘They’re so graceful!’ ‘ They make it look so easy!’  ‘Of course they’ve been doing it all their lives.’

These might be common reactions to seeing women and children in developing countries carrying heavy loads on their heads.There’s a sort of residual feeling that it must be good for the posture: none of that weighed-down, lop-sided lugging of our weekly shop in a plastic bag that’s cutting into our fingers.

But the reality is distressingly different. It’s one of the reasons why Toilet Twinning is concerned with the holistic improvement of water supply as well as sanitation, latrine provision and hygiene education.

We know that women in communities without access to running water spend hours of their lives fetching and carrying - and the carrying is almost always done on their heads.They are frequently transporting the equivalent of 20 litre-bottles of water and often walking barefoot along paths that may be steep and stony, unstable, or fraught with potential dangers from both humans and animals. And perhaps they are doing all this on an empty stomach or during periods of sickness.

Professor Ray Lloyd, a sports scientist at the University of Abertay Dundee, was concerned about this. He conducted research on a group of 24 South African women from the Xhosa people and compared them with nine British Territorial Army Women.

His tests found that life-long experience of carrying loads on the head did not make it physically easier to do so, nor did it protect against pain and discomfort.

‘All the experienced head-loaders reported that neck pain was a big problem for them,’ he said, adding: ‘They reported having to give neck massages to their mothers and grandmothers whenever they returned from fetching water.

‘All the women agreed that they would prefer an alternative method of transporting essential items such as water and firewood.’

And the pain factor is just one part of this scandal - imagine having to commit a major part of your day to collecting water, and perhaps missing out on schooling to do so.

This World Water Day (22 March), feel free to express some righteous anger about this! Could you encourage your community group, workplace, school, church etc to twin their toilets? Or use social media inform others about Toilet Twinning? Or maybe write something for a publication you have an interest in? Let’s keep at it until water and sanitation are a universal right, not a privilege.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Happy Birthday Dr John Snow. We salute you.

If you had to pay £200 to publish a book that only brought in an income of £3.50, you might feel something of a failure.  

Fortunately for the world, one characteristic of confident people is that they don’t let failure hold them back.  

Dr John Snow, who was born 200 years ago on 15 March 1813, must have been such a man. He was the son of a Yorkshire labourer but was able to ‘better himself’ through his apprenticeship to a surgeon.  He also became the author of the ‘failed’ book.

Snow mistrusted the prevailing theory that cholera was an airborne disease, caused by bad air or ‘miasma’, and he stuck to his guns. He believed it was spread through impure water.

However, his famous book, ‘On the Mode of Communication of Cholera’ was widely dismissed by the learned journals of the day. "There is, in our view, an entire failure of proof that the occurrence of any one case could be clearly and unambiguously assigned to water" one reviewer noted.  

When Dr Snow published his book in 1849 he was still five years short of getting the vital proof.  His chance came with an outbreak of the deadly disease in the London district of Soho, when 500 people lost their lives.  Mapping the deaths showed a cluster round a water pump; he insisted the handle was removed and the deaths dwindled.

Dr Snow's map showing cholera cases clustered around the Broad Street pump, Soho
It seems the Soho outbreak had been caused by a mother washing her sick baby’s soiled nappy:  the contaminated water is thought to have seeped into the drinking supply. The woman’s chore was an everyday action which many of us might have unwittingly carried out.  

Perhaps, 200 years later, we need to catch some of Dr Snow’s confidence. Confidence that we can overcome the uneven distribution of decent sanitation in our world. Confidence in the belief that a clean, hygienic toilet is not just a comfortable luxury but a vital bit of kit that keeps us healthy. Confidence that it is therefore our right and duty to demand good sanitation for everyone, everywhere.  

This is the spirit which World Water Day, 22 March, seeks to harness, and in homage to Dr John Snow may we all do whatever we can (like twinning a toilet perhaps?) to bring about universal decent sanitation.

Pic: Ceridwen