The WASH specialist from Sihay: coronavirus insights from an ex-Oxfamer’s 15 years’ experience

The WASH specialist from Sihay: coronavirus insights from an ex-Oxfamer’s 15 years’ experience

Picture of Margaret during a visit to Mahama Burundi refugee camp in Rwanda
Margaret (R) during a visit to Mahama Burundi refugee camp in Rwanda when a water storage tank was under construction by Oxfam in November 2015. Photo by Mark Chitelesi/Oxfam.

“My fear is that COVID-19 cases are increasing in the region when most countries are not very well prepared. Some countries are already weakened by multiple crises such as droughts, floods and locusts.” - Margaret

Margaret Apiyo Asewe grew up in a tiny village in Kenya called Sihay in Siaya County, Ugenya Sub-County. She grew up seeing children and adults suffer due to limited water access. She herself walked two kilometres every morning and evening to fetch water from river ‘Nyachim’. She saw how diarrhoea related diseases affected her community - this inspired her to work as a public health nurse. Margaret has just retired after working with Oxfam for 15 years - leading improvements in water access, sanitation, and hygiene for people Oxfam work with across the world.

Her credentials?

  • Strengthening dialogue between communities and Oxfam.
  • Championing a dynamic rethink of the humanitarian-development.
  • Supporting over 16 countries (including Afghanistan, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somali, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) in emergency WASH programmes during droughts, Tsunami, earthquake, typhoon, floods, conflict and disease outbreaks such as Ebola, and recently, COVID-19.

Margaret lays all her achievements at the feet of the belief that everyone has a role to play in fighting inequality and in ending poverty and injustice - and she continues to rise, championing the need to utilise local systems during humanitarian responses.

Martin Namasaka, Oxfam’s Horn East and Central Africa (HECA) Regional Media and Communications Advisor, recently spoke with Margaret who is at her home in flood-hit Kisumu, western Kenya, from his home in drizzly Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

HECA: Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan and Tanzania

Martin: Apiyo? Not a name I would say I heard before. What does it mean?
Margaret: Apiyo means the first twin. I have a twin sister, who works in the health sector too.

Martin: What have you been engaged in while working at Oxfam?
Margaret: I had the chance to work in different capacities during my time at Oxfam. These include the Public Health Promotion Team (PHP) Team Leader, PHP capacity builder, PHP coordinator and most recently as the HECA Regional WASH Advisor. In my capacity as the HECA Regional WASH Advisor, I was at the forefront of advocating for the community engagement approach in our programming in the region. I represented Oxfam in various high-level platforms such as the WASH cluster working group, cholera platforms, the WHO and health partners meetings and many more.

I was in West Africa during the 2014 – 2016 Ebola outbreak and I have been here during the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting country offices within HECA in prevention and preparedness. Besides supporting recruitment of WASH teams in the region, I also provided technical support, guidance, and capacity building to staff and partners. This strengthened programme quality and regional staff skills in humanitarian programming, disaster risk reduction and building links between long-term livelihood interventions and public health priorities.

Oxfam has a long history of developing new innovations and technologies, and since 2004 I have supported field testing and feedback of these innovations for emergency responses. It is important to listen to communities and when changing our programming we should always consider feedback from affected communities.

Some of the innovations and technologies that I have supported include hand washing practices especially for children, e.g. 'Mums’ Magic Hands' which encourages hand washing practices at critical times. Others include testing of sustainable sanitation – urine diversion toilets, tiger worm toilet and community engagement in WASH.

Handwashing nudges research in 2017-2018 to motivate handwashing outside latrines in Nduta camp in Tanzania
Handwashing nudges research in 2017-2018 to motivate handwashing outside latrines in Nduta camp in Tanzania. Photo by Margaret Asewe/Oxfam.

Martin: What challenges do you see in the WASH Sector and what does it mean for the COVID-19 response?
Margaret: Often, WASH works separately from the health sector, there is now a need for these activities to be considered an essential public health intervention.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a challenge for those of us working in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector – the current situation is a good time for WASH professionals to re-envision their strategies — and to do it quickly.

People living in densely populated settings — including urban areas, refugee and internally displaced people camps, and prisons — are especially vulnerable.

Margaret conversing with partners during a visit to IDP camps in Wau, South Sudan
Margaret conversing with partners during a visit to IDP camps in Wau, South Sudan, to support the Ebola preparedness work.

There are also questions and concerns around the technical capacity of WASH workers. Travel restrictions limit the ability of organisations to send experts to countries struggling to control the virus. Because of this, we need to use the expertise that is already on the ground as much as possible. The scale of COVID-19 emphasises the need for localisation of humanitarian responses. We are now seeing how important it is to strengthen and utilise local systems, particularly given the operational constraints on aid agencies and the scale of this crisis.

Existing ways of accessing communities may not be feasible during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the emphasis on social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. Reaching more communities through digital and other social media platforms is now necessary.

Martin: What’s the future of the WASH sector?
Margaret: The WASH sector will remain relevant in humanitarian responses especially in the HECA region - double crises, conflict, climate-induced drought and flooding, locust infestation and food insecurity dominate the humanitarian context of the region. Traditional approaches to humanitarian assistance are constantly challenged by protracted emergencies with populations remaining displaced and dependent on humanitarian aid for many years. There is need to move beyond handouts and leverage on local systems especially during the COVID-19 response.

Access to safe water and sanitation is a major priority in these crises; a human right and vital component of ensuring dignity especially for people afflicted by and made more vulnerable by emergencies. Without access to safe water and sanitation services, displaced people are at a high risk of disease outbreaks as they have little choice but to live in conditions that are overcrowded and have scarce hygiene infrastructure.

Beyond COVID-19, there will always be the need for WASH in most humanitarian programmes. However, we may need to do it differently. The future of Oxfam’s relevance in the WASH sector depends on its ability to continue looking at technologies that offer better returns; both in terms of quality and quantity for water and sanitation; systems that facilitate sustained access to safe water and sanitation. But, most importantly adoption of approaches that encourage continued engagement with communities, listening to the voices of those we work with so that they can be part of generating solutions to their challenges and implementing them.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

Together, we can save lives.

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