Dr Jenny Botha, EWT’s People in Conservation Programme, jennyb@ewt.org.za

Safe water, sanitation, and hygiene underpin human, animal, and environmental health. Despite considerable progress in addressing these issues globally, in 2017, approximately 1.6 million people died of diarrheal disease. Numerous diseases are spread through contaminated hands. The Covid-19 pandemic has spotlighted regular handwashing with soap as an effective and affordable way to save lives. It also reduces absenteeism from work and school. However, many people do not have access to clean water and basic hygiene products, and information on germ transmission and health risks is often lacking or inaccurate.

In South Africa, millions of adolescent girls cannot afford sanitary products, forcing them to use alternatives that pose a risk of infections. Many also lack information on menstruation and hygiene, and this, combined with having to manage their periods without sanitary pads or tampons, often causes embarrassment, anxiety, and shame about their bodies. Globally, we also face challenges managing the high volumes of waste arising from disposable sanitary pads, tampons, nappies, and other sanitary products.This year, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) are conducting a Water, Health, and Sanitation (WASH) project in Kutama, which is situated near the EWT’s Medike Mountain Reserve in the Soutpansberg. The project has two legs. Firstly, we are continually raising awareness on germ transmission, hand washing, and water conservation and safety with primary school learners, which we have been implementing since 2019.

Secondly, we are holding focus group sessions with 400 girls from four secondary schools on women’s health and hygiene and providing each learner with two reusable sanitary pads. Apart from being more affordable, reusable menstruation products significantly reduce waste volumes. While difficult to quantify, it has been estimated that approximately 20 billion sanitary pads are disposed of in landfills. Sanitary pads and tampons are also disposed of in toilets, leading to blockages and other sanitation problems, or they may be disposed of in the veld.The WASH project is part of a wider water conservation initiative that also includes the extensive clearance of alien plants in the Soutpansberg mountains, which improve the function of catchments in the area. Taking steps to improve human health through increased access to water and better sanitation benefits people and plays a vital role in improving environmental health and reducing related threats to plants and animals.

For more information on the project and other conservation initiatives in the Soutpansberg Protected Area, check out our “Forgotten Mountain” video.