WaterAid in Burkina Faso

Words: David Thomson   Photography by WaterAid

WaterAid in Burkina Faso

with David Thomson


Can you give us a little background on WaterAid?
WaterAid is an international not-for-profit determined to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere, within a generation. Only by tackling these three essentials in ways that last can people change their lives for good.
Since we started in 1981, we have worked closely with partners in some of the toughest places in the world, helping achieve widespread change. But doing that successfully is about more than just installing taps, toilets, boreholes and wells. The need for clean water and toilets doesn’t exist in isolation from society and politics, so understanding the different ways people use these services is increasingly key to our work.
What are the needs that you are addressing?
Globally, 2.3 billion people don’t have a decent toilet of their own - that’s 1 in 3 people. Combined with a lack of clean water and poor hygiene, this creates one of the greatest obstacles to health and environmental sustainability, and costs developing countries $260 billion every year.
Take, for instance, Burkina Faso in West Africa, one of the world’s poorest and driest nations. Almost half the population live without clean water - that’s 8.4 million people - while 14 million people don’t have a decent toilet, and more than 4,500 children under the age of 5 die every year from diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor toilets. This is just one country affected by the crisis.
Improving water, toilet and hygiene services saves lives, but also creates huge benefits in other areas, like education, gender equality, livelihoods and nutrition. Our Cooking with Water project focuses on many of these through the lens of food.
How does food and nutrition depend on a clean water cycle?
Around the world, a lack of clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene is the second leading risk factor in child stunting – a consequence of malnutrition. Therefore, a clean water cycle is critically linked to healthy eating.
Going to the toilet in the open or in poorly made toilets can contaminate the water cycle and surrounding environment, meaning that diseases spread quickly and become very difficult to control. Faecal pathogens that cause disease enter the soil, gather in the skins of fruit and vegetables, and spread through communities on hands and feet. In countries with a large number of isolated, rural communities – where food is often grown, processed and eaten in the same environment – these risks are especially strong. But building decent toilets that work in harmony with the environment can protect the water used to grow and cook food, as well as the food itself and the soil it grows in.
How are toilets and human waste useful in the food cycle?
If properly processed, human waste can be transformed into compost and fertiliser. Once euphemistically called ‘night soil’ (referring to the historic practice of collecting human poo after sundown), toilet waste contains nutrients that boost the fertility of soil. But if used raw or inadequately processed, it can be very dangerous to health and nutrition.
For poor communities farming on low quality soil, properly composted faecal-sludge (as it is more technically known) is a valuable commodity. In the village of Bouldie, in the centre-west region of Burkina Faso, the composting toilets we built have become a lifesaving technology that keeps the community healthy and grows their vegetables too.
From all the rich colours, you can easily see how their aubergines, cabbages, peppers, carrots, cucumbers, beans and okra are benefitting from the fertiliser – and farmers reap the rewards at the market. Their tasty vegetables then enter a vibrant Burkina food scene, being cooked up in homes and restaurants as tasty dishes like green beans with garlic, okra with pumpkin seeds, or chargrilled aubergine and tomato salsa.
So installing toilets can kill two birds with one stone?
Definitely, when the process is carried out carefully and safely. The health benefits is one bird, and the additional benefits for agriculture is the other. Toilets have a really broad impact on communities, freeing up time and space for people to unlock their potential, and engage in other ways to improve their environment too. There is still a lot to do, but together we are making clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene a normal part of people’s daily lives.
How can people in London get involved or help the cause?
London is an enormous, complex city, and the way we consume resources often entails costs and waste management that happens out of public view. So, I think this creates a good reason to get out in our gardens and local allotments, and get involved with the soil we use to grow food. In our kitchens, it is a great reason to make the most of the clean water we use to clean and cook our food with. And, it’s an excellent reminder that a lot of what could be considered waste has a really important role in sustainable environments.
Check out our latest WaterAid recipes on YouTube at The Remote Kitchen and on our website to help raise funds for clean water and sustainable toilets around the world.