Sandra Lako: World Water Day in Freetown

Sandra LakoOn my way to Spur Road this morning I walked past a group of children scooping murky water out of the gutter into some buckets. These buckets were then lifted to their heads and carried home. Further down the road there was another group of people, huddled around a standpipe. 45 yellow five-gallon containers were lined on either side, ready to be filled. This is daily life in Freetown.

Can you imagine having to use gutter-water to clean your dishes or wash your clothing? Can you imagine having to stand in line for hours, waiting for your turn at the standpipe? Can you imagine having to walk for miles with a bucket of water on your head?

I cannot.

Although we have had some major problems at our house, we still manage to get some five-gallon containers filled. Yes, it takes time, but it doesn’t take us hours. And yes, I have to carry it up three flights of stairs, but at least it is not three miles. It is not the same, but it gives me a glimpse of what life must be like for the average person here. Clean water is so essential yet still so difficult to access.

Today is World Water Day, an observance day that grew out of the 1992 UN conference on Environment and Development. This year’s theme is Water for Cities, which highlights the connection between rural and urban areas. Water flowing into cities generally originates in rural areas, and it is in those areas that water should be protected and managed well. Water is affected by climate changes, industrialization, natural disasters and rapid urban growth.

Did you know that most of the world’s population lives in cities? 3.3 billion people. Meanwhile the urban landscape continues to expand and expanding slums represent 38% of the growth. City populations are increasing faster than city infrastructure can adapt leading to critical water shortages.

Freetown is a city with more than 1 million people that struggles to provide its residents with the water they need. The Guma Valley Water dam that supplies the majority of the city was originally set up to serve a population of 300,000. It is no wonder that water access and availability are poor. Not only are households affected by water shortages, so are businesses, schools, Ministry buildings, restaurants and hospitals.

The Ola During Children’s Hospital has had water problems for many years now. Since Welbodi Partnership started working at the hospital since 2007, we have tried to address this situation many times but unfortunately the water problems are complex. When one battle is won, another battle arises. But we will continue because the situation is serious. Poor hygiene practices in the hospital lead to an increase of infections on the wards, which in turn lead to longer hospital stays and unavoidably more deaths. Something needs to be done.

Can you imagine one bucket and one bar of soap on each ward of 40 patients for all of the nurses and caretakers to wash their hands? Can you imagine how hard it is to keep the linen and beds clean? Can you imagine how hard it is to clean up after sick children? Can you imagine working in a hospital where water rarely comes out of the tap?

The situation is serious.

One of the problems is that Guma supplies water only a certain number of times per week. This is done throughout the city to ration the water, ensuring that each area in the city at least has some water at some point. For hospitals, this is not adequate. We think that the long-term solution might be to connect the hospital to the main water pipeline on Kissy Road. Maybe. Honestly, we are not 100% sure if that would solve the problem but it seems like the best shot. We hope to work together with hospital management, the ministry, partner organisations, and the water company to see if this is possible.

Last year Welbodi Partnership installed four 5-thousand litre water tanks above the elevator shaft with the aim that when Guma supplies water we can at least store a large amount, so that each ward will have some running water all the time. The most recent project included adding more inlets to the water tanks so that the fill-up time would be quicker and the tanks would fill up to the brim. A project we are about to commence is to install one 5000-litre water tank on the ground level, which will provide more storage of water. We will also use the water pump purchased by Welbodi in the UK to pump water from the new storage tank to the top level because when Guma does supply water, the pressure is often too low and the water does not reach the top floor. We hope that this latest water project will be a success. However, ensuring that water supply is sustainable is important, and so we also plan to partner with an organisation that may be able to get qualified engineers to assess the water situation and come up with long-term solutions.

Solving the water problems at the hospital sure seems like an ongoing battle, but I like to think that slowly we are winning ground. I look forward to the day that the water supply at the hospital will be unlimited and the residents of Freetown will have access to the water they desperately need.

Statistics taken from

Sandra Lako is a doctor from the Netherlands who previously spent four and a half years in Sierra Leone setting up and managing a pediatric outpatient clinic with an organisation called Mercy Ships. After a year at home, she returned to Sierra Leone to volunteer as medical coordinator with the Welbodi Partnership, a UK based charity supporting the only government-run children’s hospital in a country where 1 in 5 children do not reach the age of five.