Our work overseas

UPDATE: Vanuatu Schools - first toilet blocks completed

Most of the schools in Penama Province, Vanuatu, do not have toilets and there are some obvious health risks for children. With support from our donors, we're helping change this.

"Hallo, Bonjour, ça va?” yell out the school kids on Pentecost island, Vanuatu.

One thing I’ve learnt from working at UNICEF is children are pretty much the same all over the world. They want to run around, play football, smile and laugh. Just like kids here in New Zealand.

But on Pentecost island, Vanuatu, some schools are so remote you can’t even navigate to them by four-wheel drive.

Life can be challenging for these kids.

This small, mountainous island in Penama Province was badly hit by Cyclone Pam four years ago. Two years later the Manaro Voui volcano erupted on neighbouring Ambae island, covering crops in a layer of thick ash and contaminating water supplies.

It's easy to understand why Vanuatu is highest on the list of countries most vulnerable to natural disasters.

Children playing at the beach, Vanuatu.
Children playing at the beach, Vanuatu.

30% of Vanuatu schools have no safe drinking water and 25% have no hand-washing facilities.

Most of the schools in Penama Province do not have toilets and there are some obvious health risks for children. Children drink water from a tap inches away from where animal faeces are lying. Both cows and children are drinking from the same water supply.

These children don’t have soap or clean water like we do.

Cows and children drink from the same water supply
Cows and children drink from the same water supply

Cows and other animals aren't fenced in, so are free to share the school water supply

The rates of diarrhoea in Vanuatu are high – for example in 2016, 16% of all under 5 deaths were due to diarrhoea. Far too many kids miss school because of it.  Not only that but when a child repeatedly contracts diarrhoea, this has a permanent impact on the lining of their gut which can lead to stunting and severely affect a child’s ability to learn.

But all of this is preventable.

I’m visiting Pentecost Island to monitor UNICEF’s Wash in Schools project and attend a training workshop for teachers and school staff. The project began two years ago with support from the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and generous kiwi donors including the company Grochem.

The goal is for every school across Penama province to have good quality toilets, handwashing facilities and access to safe drinking water for every student.

Myself and Head Teacher Fabiola at the workshop
Myself and Head Teacher Fabiola at the workshop

I’m visiting Pentecost Island to monitor UNICEF’s Wash in Schools project and attend a training workshop for teachers and school staff.

UNICEF has collaborated with ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research) to develop Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in Schools guides and a technical manual for assessing and selection of the most appropriate school WASH systems. The manual and guides are packed full of information about water and sanitation for the school environment in Vanuatu. They guide teachers and school staff in carrying out assessments of their current facilities, assessing risks, and then planning for improvements.  

Principals, teachers, school maintenance men and women are shown how to do a risk assessment for their school. Is the drinking water safe? Are the toilet facilities safe? As in, might children get sick simply from going to the toilet?

Teachers assessing a septic tank at Melsisi school, Pentecost island
Teachers assessing a septic tank at Melsisi school, Pentecost island

The goal is for every school across Penama province to have good quality toilets, handwashing facilities and access to safe drinking water for every student.

We know that when schools are given the opportunity to decide what they need – and lead the process to build toilets and safe water supplies themselves – then they have a strong sense of ownership.

This process encourages a community ownership model, and it takes time. But we know it’s the best way to effect change.

Unused or malfunctioning toilets are dotted all over the Pacific. Many well-meaning organisations build toilets for schools or entire communities without any community involvement and then leave. When something goes wrong, lack of community buy-in and ownership means that often the facilities simply don’t get repaired.

Gambule Junior Secondary School - Before (old toilets)
Gambule Junior Secondary School - Before (old toilets)

Gambule Junior Secondary School - After (new toilets)
Gambule Junior Secondary School - After (new toilets)

UNICEF is committed to long-term solutions, supporting long-term behavioral changes. It can take years for children to form the habit of washing their hands regularly at crucial times.

We are nearly two years into the project and we have only just completed the first new toilet blocks.

This was due partly to the delays caused by the Ministry of Education’s focus on the evacuation of 11,000 people from Ambae island after the eruption, and also the level of groundwork which is necessary for long term sustainable change.

After completing a risk assessment, schools can then make plans to improve their water and toilet facilities. Some schools start from nothing; no toilets, no clean water supply.

UNICEF conducts a training session for school staff
UNICEF conducts a training session for school staff

Principals, teachers, school maintenance men and women are shown how to do a risk assessment for their school.

Once the schools have assessed the type and number of toilets and water supplies they need, they then apply to the Ministry of Education for these upgrades. When the plans are approved by the Ministry of Education, UNICEF buys the required materials and ships them to the school, with full instructions on how to construct them. UNICEF works closely with the Government and the Ministry of Education which is instrumental for sustaining long term project benefits.

School and community leaders then build the toilets and water supplies themselves drawing on local technicians and builders. If something breaks or malfunctions, they then know how to make repairs.

Nicolas - School improvement Officer
Nicolas - School improvement Officer

It takes Nicolas half a day on foot to reach some of the most remote communities on the island.

Nicolas is the School Improvement Officer for Central Pentecost Island. He is responsible for about 15 schools on the island. It takes Nicolas half a day on foot to reach some of the most remote communities. As the contact point between the schools and the Ministry of Education, Nicolas is proud to be helping children access clean water.  

“It is a good process for us, all the schools are different, they have different situations regarding toilets and water supplies, so this method can apply to all the different situations we have.”

“We are already talking about health and hygiene a lot more and it is changing the schools for the better, before we didn’t really pay attention to school toilets or water supplies, many schools don’t even have toilets.”

By the end of the project (2022), the Ministry of Education will take full control of the new school WASH systems and we will also have developed a model so that the process can be replicated in other provinces.

Hygiene messaging poster
Hygiene messaging poster

So children in Vanuatu will no longer have to drink with cows. 

It takes time to build safe toilets and sustainable water supplies, but it couldn’t be more worthwhile.

Hamish Lindsay

Programmes Team UNICEF NZ