Students from Maka Primary School (near Afio) washing their hands at a drinking tap installed through the project. Photo by Louise Kilgour, World Vision
I arrived in the Solomon Islands to be greeted by blue skies, sunshine and a stifling level of humidity caused by an overdue wet season. It was my first visit to this nation of over 900 islands and I was there to participate in my first evaluation which centred on the school-based component of the Solomon Islands Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Project.
This project provides WASH facilities and health education to 16 schools across Makira and South Malaita provinces, thanks to funding from the Australian Government. I was tasked with the responsibility of leading the data collection process in South Malaita with a small team. After a three hour ferry from Honiara, a very bumpy stint in a 4WD and the better part of a day in a small ‘banana boat’, we finally arrived at the small port community of Afio in South Malaita.
In the 10 days that I was based in Afio, there was no internet connection and phone coverage was hit and miss. At the local guesthouse we stayed in, the ‘shower’ was a large tub of rainwater with a bucket, which doubled as the means by which to flush the toilets. There is no piped water or sewage system in the area and rainwater supplies were rapidly depleting in the face of the delayed wet season. Most people in South Malaita (and in fact Solomon Islands more broadly) do not have even basic toilet or bathing facilities at home. Given that most communities lack running water but live close to the sea or a river, people commonly use local water sources for dual bathroom purposes. The practice of open defecation is hugely problematic in the Solomon Islands – according to the United Nations, it can cause a range of health issues and disease from cholera and typhoid to impaired cognitive function and undernutrition. Not to mention issues around privacy and the safety of women and girls.
In Australia, we couldn’t conceive of not having at least one toilet block in a school, but in many developing countries, this is simply the reality. The project has been working in 8 schools across South Malaita to ensure students and teachers have access to adequate sanitation facilities, including piped water for washing hands and drinking. Students we interviewed told us how great it was to have drinking water readily available near their classrooms; previously they had to travel back to their homes or to the nearest village tap to have a drink during school hours, meaning less time spent in class. While the water systems had been completed in the five schools we visited for the evaluation, toilet construction had been delayed and only two schools had operational toilets at the time of our visit. While this was disappointing for our research, it was hardly surprising given the context.
Logistics is a huge issue in South Malaita, as the only way to travel between many of these communities and out to larger towns is by boat. Materials can be shipped to Afio from larger ports like Honiara, however once the goods arrive, they then need to be transported by banana boat out to individual communities. This can mean several return trips depending on the load, which can be expensive due to high fuel costs. Boats can be delayed by severe weather and some communities can only be reached at certain times of day when the sea level is high enough to navigate through shallow mangrove areas.
During the evaluation, our boat got bogged in mud after the water level fell overnight, and when we were finally able to set off again, we were met with the full onset of the wet season. We experienced torrential rain and huge waves out on the open seas, making for a very bumpy and soggy ride. Pair these conditions with limited communication systems and you can see why it’s no easy feat to get construction materials out to these remote locations. In the community of Aimamara, the school was located at the top of a steep hill, about a 10 minute walk away from their small port. Every single piece of roofing, bag of concrete and metre of piping for the school’s two toilet blocks and water tap system had been hand-carried there by students, teachers and community members.
The areas where World Vision works are often difficult. Infrastructure is lacking, mobility is limited, communication is intermittent and government services are almost non-existent. In these areas, things don’t always go according to plan or in line with project timelines, but this is exactly where World Vision’s assistance is most needed. Our mission is to ‘engage people to eliminate poverty and its causes’ and we’ve come a long way in recent decades. However, tackling poverty is anything but simple and the way forward remains challenging and complex. And so we continue to partner with remote communities to do hard things like building toilets and changing entrenched hygiene behaviours because it’s this type of work that ultimately leads us towards our end goal.