Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA

Handwashing saves lives: using clean water to fight COVID-19

Poor sanitary conditions pose a health risk. This is a major problem, particularly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even today, one third of the world's population has no adequate access to clean water. To help people living poverty protect themselves during the current pandemic, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is supporting hygiene awareness campaigns and the creation of more handwashing stations.

In Benin, a man stands in front of a hut and washes his hands thoroughly at a makeshift handwashing station.

The SDC uses simple handwashing devices and hygiene education to help some of the world's most disadvantaged people in the fight against COVID-19 (picture taken in Benin). © WSSCC

The global COVID-19 pandemic once again illustrates that simple actions like regular handwashing with soap are important for our health and can protect us from a number of diseases. In Switzerland, maintaining personal hygiene is a natural and simple matter; for poor people in remote regions of the world, it is the opposite. In fact, the difficulties involved pose a major problem – something that Troukou Dorkas, a much-respected village leader in Téprédjéssi in northwest Benin, is fully aware of. "It's a matter of life and death. We're trying to save as many villagers as we can. That's why I go and talk to everyone personally, because some can't read or write. We're raising awareness so that everyone, particularly women, know how important regular handwashing with soap is in order to fight the virus."

While the government updates Benin's urban population on protection measures and rules of conduct via TV and social media, in remote villages little is known about the virus and its possible consequences. To address this issue, the SDC's Global Cooperation Department is running a targeted awareness campaign which also depends on the assistance of local village leaders. "After the Swiss-backed NGO explained things to us, we've decided to put our fate in our own hands," explains Dorkas. Now the people of Téprédjéssi are not only aware of the risks, but have also been mobilised to take concrete action to help themselves. 

A woman with an infant on her back shows two children how to fill the makeshift handwashing device with water in front of a hut.
Local leaders like Troukou Dorkas raise awareness and mobilise villagers (picture taken in Benin). © WSSCC

From global dialogue to local action

Local ownership is key for development cooperation to have a sustainable impact in the countries concerned. The numbers clearly illustrate how acute the problem is: there are still 2.3 billion people worldwide who do not have adequate sanitation, despite the fact that 80% of all diseases in low and middle-income countries are due to poor sanitary conditions. In many cases, poor water-supply infrastructure and inadequate sanitation is not due to a shortage of water but rather to the absence of national and international funding to provide access to water of suitable quality in remote areas. In order to address these issues, the SDC's Global Programme Water focuses on cooperation at various levels.

  • At the international level it supports the political dialogue calling for global commitments on the water-related targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • At the local level it supports knowledge sharing to help ensure long-term access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation for everyone.

When implementing specific activities, the SDC always involves local leaders like Troukou Dorkas or her colleague Simon Edjalawe. That is the only way to prepare sustainable and realistic prevention strategies and implement simple but effective solutions. "We have to fight this disease with what we have," says Edjalawe. "That's why the first thing we did was to build handwashing devices out of the materials we already had.  Now there are two handwashing stations to every home: one at the entrance to the yard or the house and another next to the latrines. These are simple but effective measures which we learned about thanks to the awareness campaigns and that we can use to fight the virus."

Training government representatives and villagers

Swiss support for better hygiene is not limited to provisional handwashing stations. One of the SDC's goals is to empower the governments of low and middle-income countries all over the world to solve their water supply problems. Switzerland has well-established and globally recognised expertise in water-related matters – particularly the installation of sanitation facilities – which needs to be included in the political dialogue with governments, the private sector and civil society.

In Benin, for example, the SDC is in direct contact with the country's health ministry via its local partner organisation Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). Through the WSSCC, the SDC is able to present prevention strategies and solutions to improve hygiene that have been developed together with villagers. In this way, Switzerland takes a targeted approach to supporting national programmes aimed at improving water supplies and sanitation facilities for the most disadvantaged. Strategic partnerships such as with the WSSCC allow Switzerland to carry out its global cooperation activities in other African and Asian countries, training hygiene officers like Troukou Dorkas in rural communities and supporting local radio awareness campaigns.

Three men with microphones around a table taking part in a radio discussion.
Radio panel participants discussing the dangers of COVID-19 and the importance of basic rules of hygiene (picture taken in Togo). © WSSCC

The global COVID-19 pandemic highlights how important international development cooperation in the water sector is. The SDC's Global Programme Water makes it possible for Switzerland to help more people access drinking water and sanitation, and contribute to improving the health of some of the world's most disadvantaged people.

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