Ask Yobeth Hebbert, Living Waters for the World (LWW) In-Country Coordinator for Nicaragua, how to maximize the health of a community that plans to install a pure water system and she'll tell you: You've got to build your health education team with intention! It's no wonder she has this team approach: She played power forward on her high school and university basketball team.
Who does she recommend you work to get on the team? Local health professionals such as doctors, nurses, aides, and clinic directors. During the development phase of the partnership, Yobeth works to make sure local healthcare providers are well aware of the plans. "We tell them that if we are to be successful, we need them on the team. We let them know we have a seat at the table for them during the health education training that takes place at the same time the system is being installed. Who better to have sharing this life changing information than these trusted and respected healthcare professionals?" Yobeth has found that the community values their opinion and so when they tell their patients to "always and only" use the pure water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, and taking care of a baby, people really listen! And the healthcare providers not only tell patients how important it is to wash their hands, they also model this behavior in front of community members, reinforcing this important behavior change for everyone.
In Orinoco for example, local nurses have teamed up with the water committee, operators and educators to come up with a game plan to educate the community. Part of that plan includes visiting schools to remind students of the health lessons about hand washing and consuming only pure water. But they realize that seeing the students at school is only one touchpoint so they don't stop there: They also make home visits to encourage mothers to use only pure water from the LWW system for anything that goes into the mouths of their family members since the water from the local well is contaminated and will cause illness if consumed. They have found this multi-faceted approach works well to raise awareness and change people's habits and behaviors.
In Pearl Lagoon, the health department has a specific person assigned to work to support the water partnership in that community. They have developed a series of short, informative presentations that they give each month while patients are waiting to see the doctor. Then during the consultation, the doctor recommends to the patients that they drink only LWW water. Patients also see that the clinic staff is using only LWW water for drinking and mixing medications. They have estimated that approximately 90% of the population in the village uses LWW water. The local health department has reported to the water committee that people's health has improved thanks to this water partnership.
Yobeth encourages water partners to pilot this approach when building the health education team. Work closely with the local health department throughout every phase of the partnership. Involve them, keep them in the loop, let them know we need them at the training to help spread the word to stop spreading germs. Having local healthcare professionals on the health ed team helps keep the education going. If your water partnership is already established and healthcare providers are not yet part of the health education team, talk to your water partners during a sustainability visit to see about reaching out to and involving them. Once you've tried this, let us know what you learn!