Two million children die of diarrhea each year, according to the UN, and the medical journal The Lancet estimates that handwashing with soap could cut the risk of diarrhea by half and save more than 1 million lives.
So in Thom Tuol Sangke market Wednesday morning, about 1,000 Cambodians, most of them schoolchildren, gathered to learn how to wash their hands as part of Phnom Penh’s first Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Day, organized by USAID.
On the market floor, two doctors demonstrated their technique at a pair of sinks: hot water, lots of lather, up to the elbows. About 20 schoolchildren, all wearing T-shirts with the slogan “I [heart] clean hands,” approached the sinks to lather up.
Tuol Sangke’s WASH Day is the kick-off of what officials hope will be an effective campaign. Cheak Ang, director of Phnom Penh municipality’s environment department, said the Tuol Sangke commune would be the starting point for a citywide hygiene campaign.
“This commune is the first and is a model,” Cheak Ang said. “In coming years, the Phnom Penh municipality will extend the program to other communes in the city.”
Mann Chhoeun, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said the government plans to erect handwashing-education billboards near the entrances to the city.
“We must keep garbage in the appropriate place, clean our villages’ environment, and wash hands before eating and before leaving the toilet,” he told the audience.
The UN General Assembly declared 2008 the International Year of Sanitation. Basic sanitation is not available to 2.6 billion people worldwide. In line with the Millennium Development Goal, the UN hopes to halve that number by 2015.
“I hope this WASH Day, the first ever in Phnom Penh, will join with many others around the world to mark the International Year of Sanitation,” said Katherine Crawford, director of USAID’s Cambodia public health office.