When health communication and public health meet: WaSH in Uganda

Kennedy and Liz with colleagues in Uganda.

Kennedy (left) and Liz (right) with Mary Athieno, engineering from ATC (center left) and the head teacher of Bishop West Primary School in Mukono, Uganda (center right)

By Jessica Scates, Kennedy George, and Liz Schlant

Published October 16, 2019

According to the World Health Organization, 2 billion people cannot access clean water to drink. Contaminated water leads to diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, and polio and causes an estimated 485,000 deaths each year. With the climate warming and fresh water sources disappearing, half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas as early as 2025.

With the climate warming and fresh water sources disappearing, half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas as early as 2025.

These statistics are staggering. In Uganda the realities associated with access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) is no different. The majority of the population cannot access safe water (61%) or sanitation facilities (75%). This disparity leads to thousands of children dying from diarrhea each year.

Yet access to these basic needs is not the only problem. Without community-wide involvement, researchers and program coordinators will not understand the depth of the challenge or how to solve it, and community members will not trust the organizations that are seeking to help. The spread of information and outreach – how, where, and when WaSH information is communicated – is a critical step to achieving adequate living standards.

Health communication is important to every aspect of health and well-being, including disease prevention, health promotion and quality of life. In July 2019, with support from the Community for Global Health Equity, Kennedy George and Liz Schlant, University at Buffalo undergraduate students in public health and biochemistry, worked at the Appropriate Technology Center (ATC) within the Ministry of Water and Environment in Uganda. The ATC researches, develops, and promotes WaSH technologies in Uganda to ensure a healthy and empowered society. Kennedy and Liz’s aim was to identify how and where Ugandans receive WaSH information.

Kennedy and Liz interned with Ashabrick Nantege, Coordinator and Senior Training and Development Officer for ATC. With ATC staff they collected data and developed a communication protocol that would optimize the ATC’s efforts to spread information about their technologies within communities and among partner organizations. In meetings with Kennedy and Liz, community members expressed concern that they do not receive any information about WaSH unless an ATC employee has come to their house or school. With data collected by Liz and Kennedy, ATC employees can better understand the issues facing the community while adjusting and focusing their communication strategies to increase knowledge about WaSH and the available technologies.

Statistics can fall short when communicating the complexity and pervasiveness of WaSH issues on human life. With their first-hand experience, Liz and Kennedy now understand how a lack of access to WaSH affects families and their opportunities for advancement. Their fieldwork imbued more meaning to their research. As they continue their education at UB they are confident that this experience has taught them lessons and created friendships that will shape their future experiences in medicine and public health. 

The Community for Global Health Equity, Liz, and Kennedy would like to thank the ATC, in particular Ashabrick Nantege's for her leadership in developing and coordinating their internship and the ATC staff whom they had the opportunity to work with during their time in Uganda.