WASH United has brought together some of the game’s biggest stars including Didier Drogba, Solomon Kalou and Michael Ballack in its campaign to improve sanitation and health in sub-Saharan Africa. Alex Lawson caught up with chief executive Thorsten Kiefer to discuss how the Civil Society Organisation is tackling a problem which kills more than 4,000 children under the age of five every day and the intricacies of the World Toilet Cup.
“We sometimes face ignorance towards our cause. People who are not working in development, often just don’t know how important sanitation and hygiene is,” opines Water Sanitation Hygiene (WASH) United chief executive Thorsten Kiefer. “They don’t know that more children die of diarrhoea than of HIV/AIDS, Malaria and measles combined.”
Kiefer’s point is a salient one, backed up by several key stats. At any given time almost half of the people in developing countries are suffering from one or more of the main diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation, such as diarrhoea, guinea worm, trachoma and schistosomiasis; around 443 million school days are lost every year because pupils and teachers are ill and millions of young girls stay out of school during menstruation or drop out of school completely due to poor sanitation.
A huge challenge then, and one which was not taken lightly by the unique coalition of international and African civil society organisations, United Nations agencies, governments and world football stars. Didier Drogba, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nwankwo Kanu and Stephen Appiah are among those who have become ambassadors for the coalition. Since May 2010, the footballing heroes have been hardworking figureheads for the cause across Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali, Lesotho, Uganda and Tanzania.
A quick glance at the state of some of those countries – Burkino Faso which suffers from endless droughts, Lesotho heavily reliant on South Africa or Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army has taken thousands of lives – will show the size of WASH’s task to reach and engage with people.
In essence, its aims are simple. Through activities in schools, youth football clubs and local communities it aims to promote safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene among children and families. Simple acts such as washing hands with soap and ensuring water is safe to drink have been the key elements to the body’s day-to-day programmes. But the coalition has wider aims including establishing links at national and international level to influence policymakers, governing bodies, civil society organisations and the media to move on the debate around sanitation.
And so far it’s worked. The charity has garnered a clutch of awards including the Sports for Health Award at last month’s Beyond Sports Summit in London and rolling its Great WASH Yatra sanitation festival out to India. The Indian roadshow starts on October 2 in Porbandar at Gandhi’s birthplace and is ending on World Toilet Day, November 19, near the foothills of the Himalaya, reaching 90m people en route.
The body’s main events involve using innovative football matches, perhaps the most eye catching of which is the World Toilet Cup. Following the motto ‘Every poo needs a loo!’, participants make an effort to tackle the sanitation crisis by kicking as many brown ‘poo-balls’ as possible where they belong – into toilets and latrines. Not for the faint hearted. This competition is flanked by the Blue Hand Game describing how easily germs spread and the speedy Handwashing Challenge. The body also gives out educational materials and star posters in local languages to educate children.
But it has been far from smooth for WASH. The organisation’s cause was dealt a hammer blow in March when the World Water Forum signed a declaration that fell short of embracing the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation as previously recognised by the UN. Moreover, Wash faces challenges closer to home as it tries to gain more figureheads. “It takes a bit of convincing to get prominent football stars into this topic. And sometimes, it’s just about getting the attention,” says Kiefer.
The WASH chief executive issues a plea to Footy Matters readers as he looks to strengthen links with the UK. He says: “If you want to help us, get us on board. We are interested in getting partnerships with Premier League clubs and with players. The Premier League is the most important league in Africa – looking for players. Your readers can help us, in sensitising players for this; in asking them about how they would like to make a difference.”
Kiefer is more than aware of the power his main ambassador, Didier Drogba can have. Seen as something of a God in his native Ivory Coast, the Shanghai Shenhua and former Chelsea striker all but single-handedly stopped a civil war in his country in 2005 with an impassioned plea, something Kiefer notes with awe. “The footballers are very important,” says Kiefer. “They offer extremely strong role models, and allow us to reach kids and adolescents with a message that is traditionally and culturally not easy to convey.”
The global economic damage caused by diseases and productivity losses related to unclean water and poor sanitation is estimated at a staggering $170 billion per year with developing countries bearing the brunt of the burden. But Kiefer believes a slow and steady approach to the problem will see this statistic fall. “We’re working on a long-term vision, where every person can realise their human right to have access to water and sanitation.
“And the great thing about this: we can actually achieve this goal in the next generation – with the help of football.”
Tags: Community Matters, Didier Drogba, Hygiene, Sanitation, Thorsten Kiefer, WASH United