WaterAid America – Providing Clean Water Around the World [transcript] [audio]

Guest: Sarina Prabasi  

Presenter: Neal Howard

Guest Bio: Sarina Prabasi joined WaterAid in May 2014 as CEO of the nonprofit. She is a seasoned leader with 20 years’ experience in international development. She most recently served as Deputy Chief of Programs at Orbis International, and as Country Representative at WaterAid Ethiopia. Prior to that, she spent nearly ten years at Pact Inc., serving both in Washington, DC and overseas. A tribute to her vision and leadership, Sarina was  named by both Fortune and Food & Wine magazines as one of the Most Innovative Women in Food & Drink, and honored by the New York Business Journal as a 2016 ‘Woman of Influence’.

Segment Overview: In this health supplier segment Sarina Prabasi, CEO of WaterAid America, a nonprofit with the goal of bringing clean water, sanitation and hygiene to over 37 countries across the globe, discusses WASH (Water and Sanitation for Health) across the world and its health impact.


Neal Howard: Welcome to the program. I’m your host Neal Howard here on Health Professional Radio. Thank you for joining us in this Health Supplier Segment. 844 million people don’t have access to clean water. 1 in 3 people on this planet don’t have a decent toilet. In this Health Supplier Segment, Sarina Prabasi, CEO of WaterAid America is a nonprofit with the goal of bringing clean water, sanitation and hygiene to over 37 countries across the globe. She’s joining us today on the program to talk about “WASH”. I’ll let her explain what WASH is and give our listeners a little bit of background about herself. Welcome to the program Sarina Prabasi.

Sarina Prabasi: Thank you, thank you so much for having me. You’ve already told your listeners the statistics. They’re quite alarming and when we say WASH as a solution, we talk about water, sanitation and hygiene and we talk about them together because together, they have the biggest impact on positive health outcomes. So water by itself, clean water by itself is great, very necessary, sanitation and toilets very necessary, good hygiene practice as simple as hand washing with soap can prevent many, many of the diseases that people are literally dying from. So we packaged that together and we call it WASH and at WaterAid, our focus is exactly on that water, sanitation and hygiene.

N: Are you a healthcare professional in any way other than providing or endeavoring to provide clean water and what was it that got you into providing clean water with all of the many things that a person could find themselves involved with?

S: It’s a great question. I lived in Ethiopia when I first got involved with WaterAid and I still remember when I was applying for the role then of the Country Director for WaterAid Ethiopia office thinking well, the organization just focuses on water. I wonder if that’s going to be limiting. And over the years and I’m now in a different role but still with the organization, I found that water connects to almost everything that I cared about. It connected to women’s rights and gender, keeping girls in school. It’s connected to health, a very strong connection to health and well-being. So many, so many unnecessary diseases and infections are caused by simply a lack of safe water in an unclean environment. As you and your listeners know diarrhea caused by poor water and poor toilets kills children all over the world. So definitely, a link to healthcare, link to just human wellbeing and getting out of poverty and if all of us had to spend many hours a day thinking about where we were going to collect our water or where we were going to go to the bathroom, our lives would be very different. So to me, water and sanitation really is a foundational step for people to change their lives and change the options and opportunities that they have and that’s what’s kept me in this space working on this issue because I really found that it connects with many, many other issues that I care about. I’m not a healthcare professional. I studied social sciences in my undergrad but our organization and our issue is one that is very directly connected to the provision of quality healthcare. And in some places where I’ve traveled and worked, I visited a healthcare clinic once where the doctor said to me, “Well, I have to go home and wash my hands because we don’t have the water here in the clinic.”, and when you hear that, that is very shocking. Or you see here in the U.S. when women are going to give birth, they have a hospital bag and they pack that to go to the hospital. When I worked in Ethiopia, I saw women that in addition to whatever else they wanted to take for the hospital, their families were charged with carrying a certain amount of water to the healthcare facility because you had to bring your own water. And so some of these things seemed so shocking and unthinkable in our current lives here but for me, they’ve been really transformational in how I think about water and sanitation and what a big difference not having these things can make to just what our options are in life.

N: You’re talking about options, here in the United States, places in Britain, developed countries, we don’t understand how it is not to have clean water at our disposal at least 99% of the time. In these places where we’re talking about healthcare facilities that don’t have clean water, am I to assume that there are places there that do have clean water and if so, why is it that a hospital can lack clean water and other folks have clean water if that is the case and if it is, why is that the case?

S: It’s a matter of consistency in the rural areas in many places. Nobody has access to clean water the way we think of it, right? You have to go and collect the water. Sometimes when healthcare centres are being designed the way that water was planned is faulty or it wasn’t planned or it wasn’t planned properly, but in some cases, it’s just a matter of the infrastructure isn’t there. The way that the infrastructure is here and and even here, we have problems with the infrastructure but it’s just a very different scale. A lot of times, healthcare facilities, sometimes, water can just be a forgotten thing or it’s not reliable, you’ll have it today, you won’t have it tomorrow. Well if you’re a patient that came tomorrow and that’s unacceptable. And it’s not the case everywhere but it’s still a significant problem and it’s one that we’ve really highlighted water and sanitation and healthcare facilities. We also focus on water and sanitation in schools. As you can imagine in schools as well, all kinds of problems from kids not being able to concentrate because they’re thirsty or not being able to concentrate because they need to go to the bathroom and there’s no place to go. So some of these things that we don’t automatically think about but those are areas and also in communities and households. So we really focus on water sanitation, hygiene, access wherever – in the home, in the school, in the hospital, everywhere that it’s needed and it’s something that is sometimes difficult to explain but also in some ways, it’s easy for people to understand no matter where you live because all of us, we felt thirsty. We know that we need water in our daily lives. We know how important our bathrooms are to us. So in a way, it’s something that everybody can relate to because it’s something that we all experience personally.

N: What would you say is the biggest challenge when it comes to providing clean water in some of these places that may never have it without outside help or some type of help and some of the, I guess, educational barriers. I mean folks have to be educated on how to obtain and maintain clean water once they have access to it.

S: So really a very important part of our work is about particularly on the hygiene side, hygiene education. The simple act of hand washing with soap is something that often people are not aware of or obviously, if there isn’t ready access to water, then washing your hands becomes more difficult than a simple activity. But education is a sort of core part as is working with communities to really plan for the long term. So it’s not just about digging a well today but as you say about how that will be maintained over time, who will take responsibility, how will the money be collected. Most of the places where we work, people are incredibly resourceful. People are very willing to do their part and they need help from whether it’s the government or organizations like us. But really, they’re very willing to do their part and in places where we work, we have communities that have, if the source of the water is not accessible, they’ve literally built the roads or cleared off a path for us or a lot of volunteer time and people spending their time and energy for something that they need and want and want to protect for the future. So in each case, I would say there isn’t a simple answer to say, “What is the biggest challenge?”. I think in each place is different. In some places, it can be geological. The water might be very deep or there may be water that has certain chemical fluoride, high fluoride content for example. In other cases, it may be that there’s so much water that there’s a risk of contamination by flooding and sort of protecting the water sources. So in each place, we look at the situation what’s already working, what are people already doing and then how can we provide some support and bolster those efforts. And we work very closely with local partners in all of the countries where we work because that’s an important part of just understanding what will and won’t work in certain places.

N: Tell our listeners where they can go and learn more about WASH and a little bit more about WaterAid America?

S: The best way to learn more is wateraid.org/us and we are a global organization focused specifically on water sanitation hygiene. We have a very strong link with health and health professionals are some of our biggest supporters because they understand the importance of water sanitation hygiene to good health and there are lots of ways to support. Obviously, financially is a one one way to support. It doesn’t have to be large amounts of money. We have supporters that do a monthly, $10 or $20 a month donation. We have people who learn more themselves and then get their friends and families involved. We have people who write letters in their local papers. There are lots and lots of different ways to get involved but a good place to start is from our website.

N: Sarina Prabasi, thank you so much for joining us and I hope you’ll come back. I learned a lot today.

S: Thank you so much.

N: You’ve been listening to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host Neal Howard for this Health Supplier Segment with Sarina Prabasi, CEO of WaterAid America. Transcripts and audio of the program are available at healthprofessionalradio.com and also at hpr.fm. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, listen in and download at SoundCloud and be sure and visit our affiliates page at hpr.fm and healthprofessionalradio.com.au.

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