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ANTANANARIVO, May 13 2009 (IPS) - Because most schools in Madagascar have no access to running water, lack of hygiene and sanitation have become a major problem for children on the Southern African island. Many pupils fall sick regularly, are unable to attend classes and hence don’t perform well at school.
Although government has promised to improve sanitation within its education system, programmes are yet to be implemented. To speed up the process, a national network of more than 150 non-governmental organisations, Diorano Wash, has launched a clean water initiative in 400 Malagasy schools that enables children to wash their hands at least once a day.
“[The water shortage] results from the fact that the country’s school construction programme did not take into account the required infrastructure. Funding for new schools did not include money to install running water,” said Diorano Wash national coordinator Herivelo Rakotondrainibe.
Lack of clean water is a problem in both urban and rural areas on the island, according to Rakotondrainibe, but the more rural the school, the more difficult it is to find sanitary conditions. In many rural schools, children are therefore instructed to bring a bottle of water each morning, which they use to wash, drink and for ablutions.
The situation has a direct impact on children’s health. According to a 2002 study by the Antananarivo-based National Institute of Statistics, more than half of under-five-year-olds die of diarrhoea in Madagascar, mainly caused by lack of sanitation. Moreover, skin infections and respiratory diseases are common results of contaminated water sources.
“Many water sources are unclean in Madagascar, and few people have access to clean water at their homes,” said Dr Emile Rasoanirainy, chief physician at the Paediatric Hospital in the country’s capital Antananarivo.
One of the schools particularly badly affected by lack of sanitation is Ilafy primary school, located in a rural area about 20 kilometres outside of Antananarivo, which has been operating without running water for the past 90 years. Asking pupils to bring their own water to school has been teachers’ only solution to dealing with the water shortage and resulting hygiene problems.
“Students bring drinking water in a bottle. It is mainly used to wash their hands after they used the toilet,” explained Aimée Rasoanirina, one of the school’s teachers. Yet, one bottle of water is not enough to ensure hygiene and sanitation throughout the day, says Rasoanirina, nor is the water the children bring necessarily safe to drink. Many of her pupils miss school due to illness, which leads to them performing less well at school.
“I draw from a river close to our house. I drink it when I am thirsty, even if it is not clean,” said Hasinanirina (9), one of the school’s pupils who says he regularly suffers from diarrhoea.
A 2009 National Institute of Statistics study confirmed that lack of access to drinking water directly relates to the percentage of children missing school, particularly due to diarrhoea. About 3.5 million school hours are lost each year in Madagascar, the study found, calculating that of the 2.5 million school-going pupils those who fall ill need about three days to recover.
Numerous schools in Madagascar have now started to educate their pupils about the importance of hygiene and sanitation. Ilafy Primary School, for example, introduces the topic of basic hygienic behaviour, such as washing of hands before meals, from Grade 1.
Having soap to clean their hands properly is yet another problem, however. “The school district provides some soap, but it is never enough for all schools,” lamented Rasoanirina.
Teachers and parents now call on government to fulfil promises to improve the country’s water and sanitation systems, prioritising schools.
“Elected political representatives have promised us a system of water supply, but so far their promises have not been kept,” said Landy Rasoatavy, a mother of three from Ilafy. She says she boils water for her children every morning, because their only source of water is a polluted river.
Until government implements sanitation systems in the country’s schools, teachers and pupils will continue to rely on initiatives, like Diorano Wash, which are dependent on funding from international donors. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and USAID have so far spent $4 million on school hygiene programmes in Madagascar.
But the country’s current political crisis might be an obstacle to a swift implementation of existing sanitation policies. Madagascar has been led by a transitional government under ex-Antananarivo mayor and former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina since Mar. 17, after former president Marc Ravalomanana was toppled.
Newly appointed Minister of Water, Niry Lanto Randriamahazo, is yet to announce a strategy to improve the supply of clean drinking water in schools.
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