Safe water is a basic necessity for life, and proper sanitation and hygiene are our baseline barrier against the spread of infection and disease. Access to these lifesaving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services are an afterthought for many, as easy as twisting a faucet, pumping the nearest soap dispenser or depressing a toilet handle.

But these key resources are a luxury for millions around the world, and the impact of their absence can be devastating — especially for vulnerable children whose immediate and longterm health is at stake.

Lack of access to WASH services can be deadly

Right now, UNICEF teams are on the ground in La Guajira, an isolated, drought-prone region in Colombia’s northeast corner, working to fill that need by delivering WASH services to thousands of at-risk families as part of a three-year partnership with the Baxter International Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Baxter International, a multinational medical technology company.

The results have been lifesaving and life-changing, especially for the indigenous Wayúu community. The region has one of Colombia’s lowest rates of access to WASH services, and this lack of access has fed a steady loop of preventable, potentially lethal waterborne disease among children, particularly those who suffer from malnutrition.

Over the past six months, UNICEF has upgraded local water systems to deliver safe drinking water to more than 7,600 people, including nearly 900 children, outside the indigenous capital of Uribia. In the nearby rural Wayúu community, more than 700 people now have regular access to a pipeline of safe water, many for the very first time. 

UNICEF is reshaping La Guajira’s water, sanitation and hygiene landscape

UNICEF Colombia works with local children to help them understand where safe water comes from and review the power of proper handwashing and hygiene practices. © UNICEF/UN0644719/Franco

UNICEF Colombia teams often journey for hours to reach remote communities where the risks from lack of WASH resources are especially acute. They stay for days, distributing hygiene kits, connecting with community leaders to discuss the health risks of unsanitary practices like open defecation, and giving demonstrations that show how hygiene practices like handwashing with soap and safe household water storage can save lives.

In the especially at-risk Wayúu community, UNICEF teams have installed WASH stations for hundreds of vulnerable residents, and helped 15 families build dry latrines. 

“By the end of 2024, we plan to eliminate open defecation, and we are working hard to increase the coverage of safe water access by 50 to 60 percent,” said UNICEF Colombia WASH Officer Diego López.

“We are proud of our ongoing partnership with UNICEF to provide the people of La Guajira with access to safe and secure WASH resources,” said Kavita Sood-Isaacs, Senior Manager, Baxter Global Community Relations. “From rehabilitating water systems and monitoring water quality to distributing water filters and hygiene kits to families, this initiative is aimed at benefiting thousands of children, adolescents, families and communities. UNICEF and Baxter have each dedicated decades to working in Colombia, and we are proud to join together and build on that commitment and history to help Colombia’s most vulnerable people.”

Building a bridge of trust

Women and girls are the main water gatherers for families in the La Guajira region. UNICEF Colombia works directly with them to demonstrate how water travels before they can collect it and how water systems connect. © UNICEF/UN0644732/Franco

In addition to increasing access to WASH services, UNICEF is also connecting community leaders and local and national government health agencies to build trust and encourage cooperation.

“At the beginning of our [WASH] program in La Guajira, many in the community didn’t have any belief or trust in any kind of authority,” López said. “We had to work very hard to start to rebuild confidence in these communities, and we succeeded in building this bridge between the communities and the government to scale up these [WASH] programs. Without UNICEF, scaling up these programs would not have been possible.”

UNICEF Colombia’s 70-year history of working side by side with community health leaders and government officials to strengthen their capacity to deliver essential services has played a critical role in building that bridge. 

A brighter future

Despite the geographical, logistic and governmental challenges, López is optimistic about La Guajira’s future. “I believe in the power of communities,” he said. “WASH is an enabler in the development of children at all levels and all areas of their lives, from their health to their education and beyond. We are on the right path.”

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Top photo: UNICEF is working to expand vital water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services to communities in La Guajira, Colombia, with funding from the Baxter International Foundation, and Fundación Halü as implementing partner. © UNICEF/UN0644671/Franco