Opinion: Schools need water to win the fight against covid-19

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The covid-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating both globally as well as here in Mozambique. Those who can are practising handwashing with soap more frequently than ever knowing that it is their first line of defence against infection. The links between water and public health have never been clearer. What is now being brought into stark focus is the link between water and education as the country grapples with the challenge of sending its future generation back to the classroom safely.

After the government’s recent announcement that schools would re-open in July there was a public outcry. Many parents were understandably nervous about the prospect of their children returning, fearing the increased risk of infection this would pose. The Ministry of Education subsequently announced that no school in Mozambique would be allowed to open without adequate water supply. Commendably this was also backed up with the promise of more money: MZN 3.5 billion to urgently expand access to water in schools.

Contrary to many other countries, the government of Mozambique has not shied away from taking decisive action to prevent the spread of covid-19.  Here again, its recognition of the need for water in schools, and the promise of an increased budgetary allocation, is to be commended. WaterAid has long sought to highlight the links between water and education and announcements like this must be given credit and celebrated.

Over the past week the government has made clear that the new money is destined to support the 667 secondary schools, higher learning institutions and teacher training colleges across the country. While this is certainly welcome, it is a concern that there does not currently appear to be any consideration of Mozambique’s approximately 12,000 primary schools. Access to water in primary schools, particularly in rural areas is deeply problematic. Primary education is a critical step in human development and it is essential that all children have continued access to it.

A further challenge is the lack of accurate data. The United Nations Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) last collated national data on water in schools in 2016. Disturbingly this indicated that as many as 69% of schools in Mozambique lacked sufficient access to an improved water source although it noted at this time that there was insufficient data available. Without a clear picture of the scale of the problem, we have no way of knowing whether the additional MZN 3.5 billion will be enough, even for the limited number of schools it is intended for.

A final point to note is that one-off investment in water infrastructure, while hugely welcome, will not provide sustainable health and educational benefits on its own. Parallel interventions in sanitation, hygiene and associated behaviours are vital to ensure students and teachers can safely use the toilet and wash their hands. Continued allocations for water, sanitation and hygiene in school budgets are also necessary to cover operation and maintenance costs and ensure services can be sustained.

A country should not be forced to choose between the education of its future generation and the health of its population. Access to water, sanitation and hygiene in schools is key to avoiding this dilemma and a reliable database is critical to planning and managing future investment. The task ahead is daunting and urgent but WaterAid stands ready to support the government and other partners to rise to it.

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