Can clean water and toilets really change lives?

860,000 children die every year from diseases linked to dirty water and poor hygiene.

Clean water and toilets: two simple things that we take for granted. Yet around 780 million people live without clean water across the world. Even more do not have their own toilet.

This not only makes life uncomfortable and awkward, this has a direct impact upon people’s health and livelihoods.

This is why the support you gave for our Clean Start Appeal matters so much: lives will be saved and lives will be changed.

Launched at the start of 2015, the appeal saw people across the UK donate goods to sell in our charity shops.

The money these goods generated then unlocked £5 million of UK-government funding, which is supporting our work to bring clean water and toilets to around 255,000 people in Kenya and Bangladesh.

An estimated five million people still practice open defecation in Kenya while diarrhoeal diseases are the third highest cause of death across the country. Thanks to you, our project in Kenya is already well underway.

Take a look at where we are working with the Kenya Red Cross…

Located in the west of Kenya, Bomet County is a picturesque part of the country. The verdant hills are dotted with tea plantations and crop fields.

A lack of water is not the issue; there is enough rainfall over a year to sustain the county’s agricultural industry. However, the lack of clean water and toilets in rural communities leads to widespread health problems. Diarrhoea, intestinal worms and trachoma – a bacterial infection of the eye – are common.

Repeated bouts of diarrhoea can damage the gut to the point where it can no longer absorb nutrients. This contributes significantly to malnutrition and, in the longer term, stunting.

Forty per cent of children in Bomet County are affected by stunting, meaning they are shorter than average for their age. Stunting can also adversely affect their ability to learn and their health later on in life.

What’s more, the average distance travelled to fetch water in the county is more than one mile. This is normally done on foot and the burden invariably falls upon women and girls.

Imagine walking one mile – usually at least twice a day – just to get water.

“The water situation in Bomet County is pretty terrible,” said Claire Grisaffi, a British Red Cross water expert.

“Most people, particularly the poorest, take water from rivers or pans, which are essentially open ponds. The lack of toilets means that rivers and pans are contaminated with faecal matter and the water is not safe to drink.”

Claire Grisaffi, Red Cross water expert

“People also bathe, wash their clothes and water their animals in rivers and pans. Using such water sources was one of the main factors behind a cholera outbreak in early 2015.”

Funds from the Clean Start Appeal are supporting work by our colleagues at the Kenya Red Cross. They are working in partnership with the Bomet County government and local water authority.

Want to know how your support is changing lives? Read on…


Kimangora Primary School is nestled among the lush, green, tea plantations that surround the town of Bomet. At one end of the school grounds stand two colourful toilet blocks. At the other end, a new water tank looms large alongside an old classroom.

The school is very proud of its new facilities, built by the Kenya Red Cross. One local even suggested that teachers carry out lessons in the toilets – the toilets are more spacious than the classrooms, they joked.

But things weren’t always so rosy, as teacher Solomon Chepkwony explains.

“We had pupils who would be here for one school term, and then not show for the second. That was because of ill health and poor facilities,” he said.

Solomon Chepkwony

Solomon Chepkwony

“We only had two toilets that were being shared by more than 60 pupils and staff. The toilets were terrible because they were being used by so many people. They would become very dirty and smelly. Instead of using them, children would defecate outside.”

One of the school’s old toilets

One of the school’s old toilets

The school’s old toilets – small crooked structures made from corrugated iron – are still standing. Thankfully they are nothing more than reminders of what used to be. Today they are dwarfed by the two colourful toilet blocks, each comprising five toilets.

Outside the toilets are two hand-washing containers filled with clean water from the new 25,000-litre water tank. The tank harvests rain water through a guttering system along the school buildings.

The water is treated before being used and, given the school’s plentiful supply, it is also shared with the local community.

Water isn’t the only thing the school shares with the community. A bit of friendly advice from the children doesn’t go amiss, either.

“Before the Red Cross came here, the majority of people would defecate along the roadside.”

Solomon Chepkwony

“You would see it every day when walking up the road. Now the children shout at someone if they see them defecating outside. So what has been learnt here is transferred to their homes and the wider community.”

And what do the children think of their new facilities?

Alex Kipngeno, 11

“We used to bring water from a well near our home. The water was dirty. I used to get sick quite often, but I didn’t know that it was the water that was making me sick.

“Now we have nice toilets and water is no longer a problem. When I’m older I want to be a teacher. I will tell the children that they will not get sick if they wash their hands.”

Dominic Kimutai, 11

“The old school toilet was very nasty, dirty and small. I wouldn’t use it, I used to go outside instead.

“Twice a month I would get sick. It would make me sad when I missed lessons and I would fall behind on my work.

“Since we got clean water and toilets, I haven’t felt sick in a long time. We clean and look after the toilets, it’s important so we don’t get diseases.”

Menstruation matters

Kimangora Primary School is one of ten schools in the county that are benefiting from the Clean Start Appeal.

But this project isn’t about building toilets and water tanks then waiting for the situation to improve. It’s vital that pupils understand the importance of good hygiene.

So teachers at each of the ten schools received health training from the Red Cross on issues ranging from hand-washing to menstrual hygiene. They then formed health clubs at their respective schools.

“We talk about menstrual hygiene, hand-washing and the importance of keeping the school clean,” said Betty Cherotich, who teaches at the Kimangora school health club.

A lack of awareness among pupils, families and staff about menstruation – a previously taboo subject among pupils – led to poor attendance at the school, according to Betty.

“Our pupils used to complain about stomach ache and we used to get a lot of absenteeism – not anymore,” she said.

“Before we went for the Red Cross health training, even I didn’t know the full facts around menstruation. I used to hide my sanitary products from my husband.

“But after the training I just put everything on the table and told my husband what I had learned. I told him: ‘These are the things that we are supposed to use. This is how we are supposed to use them.’

“He was asking me: ‘How is this one used? What do you do with that?’ I just told him everything.

“Our pupils didn’t want to talk about menstruation at first. They would hide their faces and they used to skip the class.

“We told them that menstruation is something natural that happens to each and every girl, and that it is not supposed to be hidden. Slowly the pupils became less shy and soon they wanted to know everything.

“We told them about what sanitary products are available and how they are supposed to use them. Before we would find that some girls would be absent at a certain time every month. But now absenteeism among girls is down.”


“We would get sick all the time, but we didn’t know what was making us sick.”

Edna Mastamet is cradling her grandchild in her small mud house.

The 53-year-old shakes her head as she recounts how bad conditions used to be in her rural village.

“It was so dirty, people would just defecate anywhere they could,” she explained, pointing towards a nearby road that doubled up as a toilet.

“No one had toilets, there were a few makeshift structures, but nothing proper.”

When you arrive at Edna’s house, the first thing that strikes you is how quiet it is. A tethered goat lets out an occasional bleat. Two chickens chase each other across the grass, while Edna’s grandchild snoozes quietly in her arms.

The rolling hills in the distance frame a verdant vista. This is an idyllic part of Bomet County, but it is not without its problems when it comes to toilets. Very few households in the area have toilets and even fewer have hand-washing facilities. Poor hygiene can lead to a number of diseases.

The Kenya Red Cross and partners identified 14 villages with particularly poor hygiene levels – Edna’s village of Chemengwa was one of them.

As part of the work made possible through our Clean Start Appeal, the Red Cross is working in these villages to educate people about the importance of toilets and washing hands.

“There used to be a lot of diseases such as diarrhoea in Chemengwa,” said Joyce Kirui, a Kenya Red Cross volunteer. “When people get sick, they waste a lot of time and money going to hospital to get medicines.”

Joyce, 38, teaches communities about health issues, encourages them to build toilets and makes sure hygiene standards are maintained.

“We go to every house in the village, three times a week – there are 48 households,” she said.

“When we started doing this, only 15 households had a toilet. Today, there’s only one that still doesn’t have a toilet. That’s very good progress, people have responded to what we tell them.

“People don’t get sick like they used to before, but there’s still more to do. Next we want every household to have hand-washing facilities.”

Joyce Kirui, Kenya Red Cross volunteer

Edna needed little convincing to take up the advice and information given to her.

“One day there was a meeting in the village,” she recalled. “The Red Cross told us how human excrement can contaminate water sources and make us sick.

“We didn’t know this before. We were quite scared. I rushed home and we decided to build a toilet as soon as possible.

“Now all my neighbours have toilets, but there are some villages that are still practising open defecation. We have seen the importance of toilets, so now we are telling them to build toilets as well.”


Something dramatic is afoot along the banks of the Nyangores River. The river, a tributary of the Mara River that flows through the renowned Serengeti and Masai Mara national parks, is an important water source for communities in Bomet County.

The muddied water ebbs and flows gently through the countryside. Yet its normal course has been temporarily diverted to allow for some significant construction work.

Along a 50-metre stretch of the river, dozens of labourers are filling bags with soil to shore-up a temporary weir. A large yellow JCB, somewhat incongruous in this rural setting, thumps and whirs behind them.

It is all part of an ambitious project to renovate a water network. In theory, the network connects communities and homes with water from the Nyangores River. The problem is that the supply is very unreliable.

“People have water pipes, they have water tanks, but they never have water,” said Paul Waikwa, from the Kenya Red Cross. Paul is part of the Red Cross team working with the Bomet County government and local water authority to renovate the network.

“The infrastructure is there, but there’s no water. People will tell you that the last time they got water through the pipes was a very, very long time ago.”

Paul Waikwa, Kenya Red Cross

The plan is to divert river water to a treatment plant. From there it will be distributed through pipelines to homes and communal water points, such as water kiosks.

When the work is completed at the end of 2016, the new network will supply around 55,000 people with clean water. But the infrastructure has been designed so it can be modified in the future to meet the demands of a growing population.

“Water is life, this is going to change a lot of lives.”

Joseph Kosgei, Kenya Red Cross

“People don’t have clean water at the moment. They have to get water from the river which isn’t clean as there’s a lot of pollution.

“People wash and bathe in the river. They do all manner of things. In March 2015 there was a cholera outbreak in the area. Cholera comes from drinking dirty water.”

Having access to clean water will do more than just benefit people’s health, according to Joseph.

“People will no longer waste time going to fetch water,” he said. “They can use that time to do more productive activities such as looking after their animals or tending to crops. So the economic impact of this project will also be felt.”

Here are some of the workers whose lives are going to change thanks to this work and your support…

Goliath Yegon, 32

“We’ve been using water straight from the river without it being treated, so this work will change a lot of things. First, it will reduce the diseases we get from the water. But it will also improve our livelihoods as we won’t waste time getting water.

“I’m happy to be working on this construction. I’m earning money for my family and soon we will get clean water.

“It will be the first time I’ve ever had clean water in my home.”

Goliath Yegon

Helen Langat, 36

“It is very hard work but we don’t mind, we know the benefits it will bring. The whole community is excited about this project.

“We have to drink the river water and that led to a cholera outbreak last year. I’ve got six children and their futures will be much better with clean water. I’ll have more time to look after them and I’ll also have more time to tend to my cows.”


A very big thank you to everyone who donated to our Clean Start Appeal.

All images taken by Riccardo Gangale