WASH in Schools: The Happiness Factor

young girl washing her hands
young girl washing her hands

Having worked in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector for nearly 15 years, I've often quoted statistics (see here for recent data) revealing how children are affected by the lack of improved WASH at school. This makes sense: children are regularly tasked with the onerous chore of fetching water -- often early in the morning -- so they may show up late or be tired at school. Additionally, contaminated water causes diarrhea and other sicknesses, which in turn causes absence from school or keeps kids from performing well.

But statistics don't capture the entire story of the importance of WASH at school.

Recently in Guatemala at Escuela de Pacaja 1, a school in the municipality of Santa Cruz del Quiche, I saw how important the presence of water is not only for better health and hygiene, but also for the morale and happiness of the students. I was struck by the "happiness factor" of the students at this school. They were engaged, funny and interactive. I could not imagine these children learning and relating the same way if water had not been present.

As former UNICEF director Carol Bellamy said, "Safe water and sanitation are essential to protect children's health and their ability to learn at school. In this sense, they are as vital as textbooks to a child's education." From governments to donors, it's time for people working in education to take this advice seriously.

At this particular school, the community and the government contribute ongoing financial resources to keep the WASH facilities functioning. Despite this, there are ongoing challenges with financing. When I visited Escuela de Pacaja, the school was waiting for the next installment of funding from the government to buy supplies, including toilet paper. The teachers we spoke with were personally confident in the sustainability of the facilities. I believe this is in large part due to their own vested interest in maintaining the change that these facilities have brought to the school. The kindergarten teacher, Maria Luisa Zapeta, for example, had personally painted murals on all the bathroom walls.

"In the beginning, the children didn't have the habit of hygiene and at first the community was not convinced," said Maria. "Now it is clear, the children are very close to the water -- they even play with it."

I think the happiness factor is an often overlooked, yet critical side effect of why we must ensure schools have access to running water, flushing toilets and hand washing facilities. Without doubt, there are psychological and social benefits with the presence of these facilities. It's critical for those working in the WASH sector to have a holistic approach to services which strive to reach every household, school and health clinic within a community.

By focusing on outcomes -- and working in partnership as co-investors with municipalities, communities and others -- aspirational WASH facilities are within reach for all the world's children. Only then can these children truly have improved educational experiences.

It's time to embrace the happiness factor and start with sustainable WASH services in schools everywhere.