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A water engineer tries to work miracles in Burkina Faso in the midst of the coronavirus crisis

By Oxfam
Huguette Yago is a water and sanitation engineer for AGED, an Oxfam partner. She carries out hygiene awareness sessions with internally displaced people, as well as managing groups of volunteers who maintain the latrines. Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Oxfam

Is it possible to practice good hygiene without clean water?

Huguette Yago faces a challenge of titanic proportions in this COVID-19 pandemic—a lack of water. “Without water, there is no hygiene,” she says.

A water and sanitation engineer for Oxfam partner the Association for Environmental Management and Development (AGED), Yago manages the supply of water and sanitation equipment for 3,500 displaced people in north-central Burkina Faso. She also organizes hygiene awareness sessions.

In the past year, armed groups have devastated villages in the north and east of the country, leaving more than 800,000 people displaced. They have fled to urban centers or sites designated for internally displaced people (IDPs), where overcrowding and lack of access to water are huge problems for families and host communities.

The situation has become more desperate since, as of April 7, Burkina Faso had 364 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 18 deaths, according to the John Hopkins global case tracker.

The best advice doesn’t translate into reality for displaced people

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The shelters at the Pissila site are designed to accommodate a maximum of seven people, but accommodate an average of 15 to 20 people due to the constant influx of new displaced people. Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Oxfam

With Oxfam’s support, staff at AGED are doing everything they can to help displaced people and prevent the spread of the virus.

Yago oversees six community workers who are responsible for raising awareness about hygiene measures, such as frequent handwashing with soap and water, wearing a mask, and social distancing. They’re all good practices in theory, but they don’t translate into reality for displaced people.

“They say they are aware of the disease but cannot comply with these measures because the little water they manage to get cannot be wasted washing their hands several times per day,” Yago says. “In addition, the 400 grams [14 ounces] soap they receive each month is not enough for the whole month. So how can they wash their hands regularly?”

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A woman shares the amount of water she has collected for the day at the Pissila site. Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Oxfam

As for social distancing, the situation is even more serious since the shelters are supposed to hold a maximum of seven people, but the reality is quite different: "We are left with 15 to 20 people per shelter," says Yago.

Humanitarian workers persevere despite a lack of resources

Yago has always wanted to work in the humanitarian sector, and she tells us she feels like she has found her calling. But the conditions are difficult, particularly with the arrival of this pandemic, which has added to the already existing health crisis.

“We have to help and protect people, but we lack the resources to do so. There should be drilling for water near the sites, or an attempt to connect these sites to existing water systems, or at least water should be trucked in. All of this requires huge resources, but health is priceless.”

Despite their limited means, Yago and her team don’t give up.

“Everyone knows their job. We have three awareness sessions per week and the hygiene committee—made up of volunteers—takes over when we are not there,” she says. “We explain to people that they can use ash to wash their hands when they don’t have enough soap.”

Oxfam and AGED are providing humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people and host communities in the region by supplying clean water, sanitation, and hygiene equipment.

So far there are no recorded cases of the coronavirus in the IDP sites where Oxfam operates, but with the growing influx of new arrivals, it is only a matter of time. For Yago, it is essential to prevent the spread now, in particular by ensuring that site managers are well informed about the instructions given by the World Health Organization so that they can in turn educate their peers.

“If the hygiene measures are applied, this will prevent the virus from spreading in these sites,” she said.

*This story was originally published on Oxfam International’s website and has been edited.

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