Lining up to get a few litres of water; no bathing or tooth brushing for weeks; clouds of flies crawling on the bed sheets, along the edges of bowls, and over the latrines; green vegetables a rarity in their diet. These are the realities of daily life for more than 24,000 students and teachers in 68 boarding schools in Shizong County, one of the areas worst-hit by the severe drought in Southwest China’s Yunnan province.
One or two mouthfuls of water
Water bottles and plastic containers under school desks are a common sight in the classrooms of Longga Complete Primary School, tucked deep inside this mountainous district. Most of the students are of Miao, Yao, Zhuang and Yao ethnic groups.
“I receive a bottleful of water (about 1.5 litres) every day. I drink one or two mouthfuls and save the rest to wash my face in the morning and my feet at night,” fourth-grader Gao Xiaoxiu, 12, said.
“The well at the mountaintop has dried up. A truck carries water to our school every week, and we can get 2 to 3 bottles of water.” she said. The girl also carried a large container of water from home - about 2 hours’ trek on the mountain road - when she returned to school every week.
“According to humanitarian aid standards, a person shall receive at least 15 litres of water for daily use and drinking,” Mr. Yang Zhenbo, UNICEF China’s Water and Sanitation Specialist, said in an assessment trip to the boarding schools in the county. “Currently, in the schools we visited, most of the children receive less than 4 litres of water every day.”
With persistent drought conditions since last September, Gao Xiaoxiu and her peers have learned to reuse their water several times before it ends up watering the campus flowers. To wash her face she pours out a tiny bit of water to cover the bottom of her plastic basin to wet her face. Next, it will be used to wash hands and freshen up after playing sports under the scorching sun. By now the water has turned dark and filthy, yet it still offers a small comfort for washing her feet before going to bed.
Left with such a small amount of water for personal hygiene, bathing or brushing her teeth has become a once in two or three weeks’ luxury. But when asked if he washes his hands after going to the toilet and before meals, first-grader He Jianqiang and his peers answered “yes.”
The 9-year-old boy’s dark and coarse-skinned hands with tiny cracks and dirt-filled fingernails look like the hands of an old man. He ran up to the dormitory with his friends – a dilapidated classroom-turned-dorm room where he shared sleeping quarters with more than 20 boys on the ground – and washed his hands with muddy water in the basin. None of the basins in the boys’ or girls’ dorms contained clean water.
Lack of water storage
Zhao Junlong, principal of Fenglongtan Primary School, says the daily per-student water consumption has decreased to 1.5 litres - about one quarter of the ration from before the drought. The school used to collect rainwater from the roof and store it in four underground cisterns. “Three of the cisterns dried up, and the concrete bottoms of two are cracked.” Zhao said.
All of the 128 students rely on water transported by truck from 4 kilometres away. “We have to pay 40 yuan for a tank of water (about 5 m3), and the government promises to cover the remaining 60 yuan cost,” he said. The bill hasn’t been paid yet.
The only cistern in use can hold only 20 cubic meters of water. “If we can have a bigger one, about 100 m3, we can transport more water to school and increase the water allocation,” Zhao said.
Besides water cisterns, lack of funds to procure water tanks and cover transport costs was the biggest obstacle to delivering water to schools and communities in remote mountainous areas, according to Cao Lihua, deputy county governor.
“Each tank cost about 5,000 yuan, and we got only two from the government,” driver Yan Jinlin said. “I deliver water to 747 households in seven villages and can barely meet the needs. If we can have three more tanks, it will greatly relieve the pressure.”
Rising concern for nutrition
The severe drought has not only cut off the water supplies but has also affected the food supply at the school canteens.
“The vegetables in our school garden died up and the prices of rice, green vegetables and potatoes have doubled or tripled at the market as there is no harvest since last autumn,” said Li Yufa, principal at Central Primary School in Kuishan Town.
At lunchtime, fifth-grader Duan Siguo of Shubo Primary School squatted in the playground with his peers and ate the same food he has eaten for several days – three packets of pickled chili or bean curd brought from home, some rice, and sliced potatoes with soup.
“We can only ensure that the children can have enough to eat, and the quality becomes secondary,” said Zhao Junlong, principal at Fenglongtan Primary School. “The canteen provides at most a meal with vegetables once a week, and the meat provision has been reduced from twice a week to once.”
“If the canteen staff forget to close the windows, rats from nearby rural households will sneak in,” Principal Li said. The canteen used chemicals provided by local CDC to kill the flies and rats. As the drought killed crops across the county, more rats turned from the field to farmhouses.
“Lack of water and sound hygiene practices in crowded school dormitories increase the danger of epidemic outbreaks like diarrheal and intestinal parasites, which will further worsen the nutrition,” Yang Zhenbo, UNICEF China’s Water and Sanitation Specialist, warned.
UNICEF in action
UNICEF and UNDP concluded a joint assessment in Shizong County on April 9th. UNICEF will help with the water transportation cost, provide water tanks to increase delivery capacity, donate purification chemicals and improve sanitation and hygiene. UNICEF is also in discussions with its local counterparts about long-term water cistern construction for schools after the expected rainy season comes in late May.
The author is a UNICEF China communications assistant (www.unicef.org/china)