Just three years ago, many would have thought backyard gardens were impossible in Zambia’s arid Sinazongwe district.
Today, when I visit the villages in and around the area, I see families growing their own food – corn, vegetables, even peanuts. I see the smiling, healthy faces of children on their way to and from school. I see well-fed goats, chickens, cows and other livestock. I see communities thriving.
It’s proof that bringing local access to clean water makes the impossible, possible.
Operation Eyesight began working in Sinazongwe in 2001.Over the last three years, in partnership with the Zambia Department of Water Affairs, our focus has been rehabilitating defunct and dysfunctional water boreholes in the area, as well as drilling new ones. To date, we have drilled 106 boreholes and rehabilitated 96 more around Sinazongwe – bringing clean, fresh water to communities that previously lacked local water sources.
Why rehabilitate boreholes rather than just drill new ones? Unlike drilling a new water borehole which takes time to identify a location and install necessary infrastructure, rehabilitation of previously drilled (by other NGOs) and non-functioning boreholes costs less and brings many quick wins for communities. Therefore, borehole rehabilitation makes the best use of every dollar spent.
Clean water and avoidable blindness
Operation Eyesight’s mission is to prevent blindness and restore sight. In Sinazongwe, trachoma was one of the leading causes of preventable blindness. I use the past tense, because our partnership with local communities to improve access to clean water has reduced the prevalence of this devastating infection in the district.
Trachoma is a bacterial infection that leads to irreversible blindness if left untreated. Although trachoma can be treated with antibiotics if caught early enough, lack of access to fresh water and inadequate hygiene are significant contributors to this painful disease’s spread through villages and communities. So, in Sinazongwe, bringing access to fresh water is the most effective way to address preventable blindness at its root cause, as well as prevent the transmission of many other illnesses and diseases. When people have access to fresh water, they can wash their hands, faces and clothing and prevent the spread of infection.
I often explain to our donors and hospital partners that you can’t tell people to wash their face if they have no clean water. Our team works in these communities every day and we are now starting to see behavioural changes where people are washing their faces more frequently. We are therefore addressing the root cause – and not the effect – of the problem.
I have personally seen the shift that takes place when clean water comes into a community. It’s an impact that extends beyond eye health, hygiene and improved health outcomes generally.
Access to water targets a range of different issues, especially for those responsible for drawing water: women and children.
In my work with Zambian communities over the past four years, I have found that bringing water closer to home actually improves school attendance in the majority of schools and communities where we are working. In fact, in areas where Operation Eyesight is working, we are seeing more girls in school than boys. It’s actually giving girls a chance to get an education.
Why? Because they don’t have to walk long distances fetching water from water holes, rivers and streams. This labour-intensive process leaves them fatigued when the time comes to go to school later in the day.
When water is far away, families are unable to store enough for their household. They may have enough for cooking and drinking, but do not have enough for washing and cleaning. Additionally, depending on its source, water may not be safe to drink. On the other hand, when clean water points are closer to home, it means families have enough water in their household at any given time.
Getting the whole community involved
We know that community ownership and maintenance of a borehole ensures its longevity. I have seen first-hand that partnering with local community leaders to form Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) committees – comprised of both men and women – helps spread awareness in the community about how to use and maintain the borehole and ensures its longevity.
Experience has taught us that children can be our greatest teachers. School WASH clubs are also making waves in their communities, building healthy hygiene habits among students by encouraging them to wash their faces when they arrive at school. Health education sessions are also helping make children ambassadors for proper hygiene when they go back to their own families.
Part of what makes Operation Eyesight so unique is our philosophy of not only empowering communities to look after their own water sources, but also our ability to scale and spread these successes.
The benefits and quick wins that come with locally-available fresh water are not limited to Sinazongwe but can – and are – being replicated in other parts of the country and African continent. In 2021 we drilled five new boreholes and rehabilitated 51 more in communities in Zambia’s Central province and have similar projects underway in other parts of Kenya.
Our approach to empowering communities and amplifying impact is what makes Operation Eyesight so unique. We are targeting vision loss and preventable blindness at their root cause.
Replicating our approach, while taking into consideration the unique needs and strengths of our communities of work, we are bringing entire communities back to life, health and prosperity.