Three girls play as they pump water from a well

In the UK, keeping children safe means babyproofing your home or teaching youngsters to look both ways before crossing the road.

In Afghanistan, it could mean stopping children dying from diseases picked up from human waste.

More than just a nuisance

For most people in Britain, diarrhoea is a nuisance that can be easily treated. If a child is very badly affected, care is always available.

But in some countries, diarrhoea is life threatening.

Nearly 1.3 million children under five die from diarrhoea worldwide, making it the second most common cause of child deaths.

In fact, over half of these deaths occur in just five countries. Afghanistan is one of them.

What makes this even sadder is that children’s lives could be saved if communities had clean water, toilets and hand-washing facilities.

How can this happen in the modern world?

In Afghanistan, poverty and years of war mean that life has either not improved or become even more difficult for millions of people.

As a result, only around a quarter of Afghans have clean drinking water. The rest rely on dirty streams or other contaminated sources.

And just a quarter of people have hygienic toilets.

Many don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet, often because they have nowhere to do so.

Anis Gul stands with three of her children

That was the case for Anis Gul (above), a mother of seven.

“Two years ago my family and I used an open area for defecation and did not pay any attention to washing our hands afterwards,” Anis said.

“As a result, diarrhoea was a common health problem among our children and other family members.

“We did not know that this was the real cause of our illnesses.”

Clean water cuts disease

Working with our partners, the Afghan Red Crescent, we started a pilot project in three villages in the remote Balkh province in 2007.

Today, the project has expanded to 15 communities.

Its goal? To help over 33,500 people improve their health through clean water and hygienic latrines.

Over 400 community volunteers have helped build wells, install latrines and teach their neighbours about hand washing.

Based on this success, the Afghan Red Crescent is now running similar projects in other provinces.

Rooted in the community

Abdul Majid sits on a chair talking to another man with community members sitting in the background

The project helped each village form a health committee. The committee decides where work should be carried out and advises people on how to use new facilities, such as wells.

Abdul Majid (above) is on the health committee in his village. “The Afghan Red Crescent consults us and lets us lead on decisions,” Abdul said.

“Normally on Fridays we gather in the mosque and ask the community what problems they have. We discuss these with them and try to find solutions together.

“For example, where women had to go to the toilet in the open air this was not acceptable. They were the first to get latrines.”

“We live in a harsh place”

A group of girls n Afghanistan hold up their hands in celebration in front of a new sink with soap

One community member, Mr Tora, spoke of how the latrines helped his family.

He said: “I live here with my wife, four daughters and my brother who is physically disabled.

“We live in a harsh place. There is no electricity or proper roads, no communication. Before, there was no water for crops and we had to walk a great distance for drinking water.

“The Afghan Red Crescent water and sanitation engineer came to my door to tell me we had been selected to receive a latrine.

“My father and uncle both died from cholera (caught from dirty water) so this work is important to me and my family.”

Saving lives across generations

Two women demonstrate handwashing to a large group of girls and other women

Over 10,000 volunteers have also learned how to share important health advice with their neighbours.

In the mothers and grandmothers’ group above, women meet to learn.

Grandmothers are highly respected in Afghanistan and can influence their husbands and sons.

This means they can help bring about change across the community.

Roshan, a 60-year-old widow, has been an active Afghan Red Crescent volunteer for 13 years.

She said that as a result of the community health project, people in her village are ill much less than in the past.

A man and three boys pump water from a well in Afghanistan

Ziauddin, a father who lives in another village, agreed with her.

He said: “Previously I used to spend more than half of my income on medication as my children continually suffered from diarrhoea.

“This was because our main source of water was from the river.”

Three years ago the Red Cross constructed a deep-water well near his house.

After the family started drinking well water, there were fewer cases of diarrhoea among youngsters.

Ziauddin can now spend more on nutritious food and other essentials for his family.

“We expect the Afghan Red Crescent to expand their work to other villages as well so that other communities can also benefit.”