Water, sanitation and hygiene—and the positive difference churches can make

Photo: Marcelo Schneider/WCC

Dinesh Suna, coordinator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Water Network, offers insights on how religious institutions are influencing, in innovative and positive ways, people’s access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

What is the interface between water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), development work and religious institutions?

Suna: Many religious institutions, or faith-based organistions, are engaged in development work in different capacities. WASH is a key entry point to work in any community. Be it poverty, hunger, health, education, gender or climate change, the WASH situation of a locality is one of the key indicators of how people are doing.

For faith-based organizations, it’s a moral imperative to address issues of injustice and stand beside the poor and marginalised. We work on access to basic WASH services through religious activism.

What difference can religious leaders make?

Suna: Use of toilet and hygiene practices in particular are strongly influenced by socio-cultural factors. Awareness raising and educational measures by religious institutions can contribute significantly to a better understanding. More than 80% of world’s population identify themselves with a religion. What religious leaders have to say about WASH awareness to a community makes a huge difference.

It’s important for development leaders and governments to consult religious leaders, so that the correct messaging and knowledge is passed on to communities.

How do religious and cultural norms influence hygiene practices and cleanliness?

Suna: To a large extent, religious and cultural norms influence hygiene practices and cleanliness. Several teachings from religious scriptures in different faiths promote this. However, religions do not always promote cleanliness and hygiene, but many times the reasons for unhygienic practices. I come from India, and many festivals and rituals such as immersing the dead bodies, and sprinkling ashes from cremations in the holy River Ganga/Ganges, as per the Hindu rituals, while others are taking a dip in the same waters for salvific experiences, are a hotbed for infections. Similarly, after a festival, immersion of the deities /idols that are made up of many toxic substances, such as lead, into rivers and ponds creates another huge pollution of the water bodies.

On the other hand, to respect the religious sentiments of the Hindus, government through a court order has awarded river Ganges and Yamuna as personhood/legal status to prevent further pollution of these rivers. This is a positive influence of religion.

What are the lessons learned and success stories in working on WASH and using religious concepts for hygiene education?

Suna: During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa during 2014, churches and religious institutions played a vital role in providing psycho-social support, care and counselling to the victims.  One important area where the churches played a vital role was during burial / funeral services of the victims, which according to the WHO, was responsible for about 20% of new Ebola infections. Churches successfully convinced the relatives of the diseased to safely bury their loved ones, without the guilt of NOT following traditional rituals of touching and washing the dead bodies, distributing the cloths of the diseased among the family members for memories but burying them with the bodies.

With epidemics also come fear, sometimes based on mis-information and rumours.  Religious leaders played vital roles in addressing these fears during the Ebola outbreak.

Christian hospitals in the region, too, played an important role in caring for Ebola victims. In a number of countries, Christian health / medical associations are most often the first responders and are trusted by the locals.

What are the challenges you have been confronted with so far due to your work on this topic?

Suna: Water has a very strong spiritual significance in almost all religions and, in Christianity, it is all over the Bible. It’s rather easy to relate to issues of water in Christianity. But a lot more has to be done in bringing behavioural change in people.

In India during the Swatchh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission), India has planned to make the nation open defecation-free by last year, while until three years ago about 600 million people were practicing open defecation. Millions of toilets were built by the government under this scheme for the poor. However, culturally it is not acceptable for Indians to defecate in their house (the toilet was part of the house).  They did not use it for its purpose.  Some took advantage of the only concrete structure – the toilet in the house, which is a thatched house, was used to safely store essentials such as food.

It took a lot of awareness by some faith based organisations there, such as the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, to sensitise the rural communities.

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