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Why it takes six months to turn on a tap

A child dies every 20 seconds as the result of poor sanitation and hygiene. Training children to wash their hands with soap is as vital as providing drinkable water and toilets.

How do you get clean, fresh water to a place with no roads and no electricity?

Climb a hill. Then another hill. Hack your way through tangled grass. Then up one last slope, feet slipping in mud, and you've reached the spring. Fill your containers with water - as many as your back can bear - and start the long trek home.

The mothers of Hohorai district in Timor-Leste made that journey every day. With no access to toilets, generations of open defecation had left nearby water sources contaminated, forcing women into an ever-longer trek to find drinkable water for their families. Fresh running water and sanitary toilets seemed like an impossible luxury.

So when Red Cross asked Hohorai villagers how we could help, the answer was obvious. "The communities here identified both safe water and toilets as key to improving their quality of life," says Stuart Bryan, an Australian Red Cross water and sanitation specialist working in Timor-Leste.

Yet bringing clean water to a place like Hohorai is never as simple as showing up and installing the plumbing. There are vast logistical challenges to overcome.

The first challenge is to provide running water to a village with no electricity. Timor-Leste Red Cross specialises in gravity-fed water systems, which move water downhill from a natural spring to a village. These systems can last more than 20 years if well maintained.

The next challenge is to ensure sustainability; here local ownership and commitment becomes critical. In Hohorai we provided resources and expertise, while villagers offered local knowledge and volunteered their labour. Together we identified the best places to install the water tanks and taps. Building materials were transported along new access roads dug out by the local volunteer network, which were frequently washed away by heavy rains.

It took six months of hard work before water first flowed from a tap in Hohorai. Today it takes closer to two minutes than two hours to get water. The spring is protected from contamination by a concrete structure at its source. The water is filtered and diverted to each village, where water tanks are located at convenient points for families to access. The next step will be to build pour-flush toilets, initially in public toilet blocks and eventually one for each household.

Behaviour change is just as important as a tap that flows or a toilet that works. Before people's health can improve, they need to understand the connection between water and the germs that cause diarrhoea, and how the safe disposal of human waste can keep their water systems from becoming contaminated again. These can be challenging concepts to explain in communities that might have never had access to health education. That's why training people to build taps and training them to wash their hands always go together.

As Januario Ximenes, Secretary-General of Timor-Leste Red Cross explains: "Our projects are successful because we work in close collaboration with the communities and develop strong relationships." These relationships open doors for other initiatives, from improving maternal and child health to flood-proofing homes and crops.

We rely on our donors' help to provide life-changing water and sanitation facilities. Thanks to supporters like you, Red Cross has provided 12,000 people in 14 villages with clean water in the last two years. There are many more places where the search for clean water keeps people trapped in poverty and with your ongoing support we can continue turning on taps and changing lives.

Photo: Australian Red Cross/Conor Ashleigh