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International Water Expert Stresses Sanitation Services in Schools

Susan Bence
Vanessa Tobin visited Milwaukee earlier this month.

Vanessa Tobin has a very specific professional niche. She is Senior Technical Adviser for Water Supply, Sanitation and Water Resources Development for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) based in Baltimore Maryland.

Before joining CRS in 2012, Tobin worked extensively in the field for the United Nations and other organizations in places such as South Sudan and Nepal. Most recently she served as UNICEF’s Chief of Water, Environment and Sanitation.

Tobin recently came to town to address the Rotary Club of Milwaukee.

“This is a follow up to the Rotary International Conference in Korea and there was a major focus at the conference on water and sanitation and global needs present day with some of the increasing challenges we have,” Tobin says.

Sometimes you have to be careful of how many messages you give a rural population. You give them a health message, you give them a water message, you give them an ag message, and then they are bombarded and before they know where they are they will not know which message would come first. Vanessa Tobin

She describes sanitary conditions in many countries as poor. According to Tobin, approximately 2.6 billion people lack access to sanitation; about 665 million don’t have access to a clean water supply service.

“Countries where even there has been good progress, such as in India and China, there is still hundreds of millions of people who don’t have access to toilets,” Tobin says.

She says in northern areas of India, girls must walk into the fields to fetch water.

“In the morning, very early, for privacy so that they can go somewhere that’s relatively safe,” Tobin says.

She cites small piped water supply programs underway in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo as an example of efforts to affect change.

“We don’t put services in ourselves. We work with local government, with national governments and local partners to build capacities that help others to do that job for water supply or sanitation,” Tobin explains, “so we work with local government, train local government on technologies are simple to maintain, easy to use, make sure there is a good supply chain in place, and make sure trained mechanics are available that community can access. That works the best way in the long run.”

CRS also works with local governments to nurturing small water and sanitation businesses to both crete jobs and better ensure reliable services.

“So you’ve got drilling operations run by local technically-trained people. Then the government regulates to make sure prices are regulated and make sure communities are not satisfied with the standard that’s been provided and that has accelerated service delivery,” Tobin says.

She hopes to work closely with Rotary International as it pushes forward with programs designed to address water sanitation needs in schools.

“We still globally only have about 50 percent of schools that have access to sanitary facilities, access to water supply and to toilets,” Tobin says.

Why is this so important?

"Because if we’re going to get to grips with all of the challenges in water sanitation and its impact on health if we don’t get to young children. We need to children coming into primary school getting those hygiene messages and are in a hygienic environment from an early enough age. The impact that has lasts a lifetime,” Tobin says.

She says the second important aspect of school programs is to improve young girls’ lives and their ability to stay in school.

Providing water systems in schools can bring the resource closer to homes. That means girls don’t have to walk as far to fetch water for her family.

“She’s still walking, she might be walking, in the case of Ethiopia up to 1.5 kilometers, even in cases of improved services, and she has to carry 20 liters every time she goes,” Tobin adds, “So if we want to focus on interventions that will empower women, that will lead to a more balanced development in countries, we need to seek those projects that are really going to focus on girls and women.”

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.