Fresh water plays a complicated role in many of the world's poorest regions. It is the lifeblood of daily activities like drinking, washing and cooking – yet, when mismanaged, it can present unparalleled danger. According to the World Health Association, about 2.6 billion people currently lack access to adequate sanitation – a situation that enables the spread of deadly diseases.
Seventy-five percent of local people are afflicted with schistosomiasis, a chronic parasitic illness that affects millions worldwide and is most prevalent in poor communities without access to clean drinking water.
The problems of poverty and disease are closely linked. But in addition to infrastructure development, there may be an easier and more cost-effective solution: education. Take eastern Madagascar's Marolambo district – a region both blessed with an ample water supply and plagued by waterborne illnesses. Many local people remain unaware of the strong ties between factors like sanitation and human health. Sewage is dumped directly into rivers and streams, polluting the freshwater supply.
Thanks to a recent partnership with the Loharano Association, a local health organization, Conservation International (CI) is working with local communities and schools in Marolambo to raise awareness of these connections and prove that healthy freshwater ecosystems lead to healthier people.
FEATURE: In Madagascar, Pioneering a New Model for Conservation
Fresh Water + Human Health
Madagascar's Nosivolo River and surrounding watershed is the country's most important region for freshwater biodiversity; it is home to 19 native species of fish, four of which are found nowhere else on Earth. In September, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands declared the Nosivolo River as the country's seventh "Site of International Importance," an area encompassing 358,500 hectares (almost 886,000 acres). This designation encourages the wise use of wetland areas in a way that balances development with important conservation measures.
PRESS RELEASE: Nosivolo is designated as Madagascar's first riverine Ramsar site
Currently, about 98 percent of Marolambo's population doesn't use latrines, which many see as shameful and taboo. This mentality presents a major hygiene obstacle; heavy rains wash fecal matter not contained in latrines into nearby waterways, contaminating water and spreading disease.
Expanding local involvement in natural resource management will provide a crucial opportunity to change behavior regarding water use, personal hygiene and communal sanitation practices – and lead to cleaner water, more resilient ecosystems and healthier human populations.
Seventy-five percent of local people are afflicted with schistosomiasis, a chronic parasitic illness that affects millions worldwide and is most prevalent in poor communities without access to clean drinking water. In addition, about 25 percent of the local population is under the age of five – and therefore especially vulnerable to disease.
It's a communal problem with a community solution. Expanding local involvement in natural resource management will provide a crucial opportunity to change behavior regarding water use, personal hygiene and communal sanitation practices – and lead to cleaner water, more resilient ecosystems and healthier human populations.
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Fighting Disease with Education
Working in 14 municipalities and 47 fokontany (villages) in Marolambo, CI and Loharano are expanding awareness of the connections between water, sanitation and hygiene, conducting activities that:
Help reduce the severity of waterborne diseases by encouraging people to use latrines and change other behaviors. In partnership with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the program is also distributing free antibiotics that fight schistosomiasis and other worm parasites.
Promote synergy between traditional culture and environmental conservation, such as encouraging communities to continue traditional forest protection practices that keep trees standing, preserve species habitat and maintain a healthy watershed.
Ensure the involvement of all stakeholders in advocacy and education, including government officials, community leaders, teachers and health services employees.
This project may be in its early stages, but it's built on a foundation of CI's 20 years of work on ecosystem protection in Madagascar. While continuing to spread the word about waterborne disease, CI also plans to explore other ecosystem-health links, such as the connection between forest degradation and the prevalence of malaria.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about CI's work with communities in Madagascar