The Connection Between Clean Water and the Prevention of Blindness

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Students at Mweela Primary School in Zambia haul clean water to the school’s fruit and vegetable garden. A borehole on the school grounds is helping prevent the transmission of trachoma, an eye infection that causes vision loss and blindness, while also giving students a chance to learn agricultural skills © Courtesy of Operation Eyesight

For students at Mweela Primary School in Zambia’s Sinazongwe District, book learning makes up just part of the school day. The rest of the time is devoted to more hands-on tasks, like learning about the importance of hand and face washing, cleaning the classrooms, and taking care of the school’s orchard and vegetable garden.

All this is made possible by a borehole drilled on school grounds by Operation Eyesight in 2008.

“We teach learners the importance of water. Instead of going somewhere else to go and fetch water, we find water within the vicinity,” says head teacher Nene Kaunga. “Enrollment has since dramatically improved and increased.”

Operation Eyesight, an international development organization that was founded in Canada 60 years ago, began working in Sinazongwe in 2001, bringing much-needed screening, prescription eyeglasses, and life-changing eye surgery to patients and families. Through a partnership with local government agencies, staff, and volunteers also began rehabilitating defunct and dysfunctional boreholes across the district, including the borehole at Mweela Primary School.

What does access to clean water have to do with healthy eyes and clear vision? Everything.

Today, nearly 116 million people across the globe are at risk of vision loss due to trachoma, a bacterial infection that leads to blindness when left untreated. If caught early, trachoma can be treated with antibiotics; however, resulting vision loss cannot be reversed, which is why it is critical to prevent infection from happening in the first place. Lack of access to fresh water and inadequate hygiene are key drivers behind the spread of this devastating disease.

“Before our teams began working in Sinazongwe, trachoma was one of the leading causes of preventable blindness in the area,” says Kashinath Bhoosnurmath, Operation Eyesight’s President and CEO. “Today, access to clean water and hygiene education is dramatically reducing the prevalence of trachoma and other illnesses.”

clean water
© Courtesy of Operation Eyesight
© Courtesy of Operation Eyesight

In 2022, Operation Eyesight rehabilitated 120 boreholes in Zambia. By training local teams of pump minders, communities are able to maintain their water source long-term. It’s a sustainable approach that is being replicated in Kenya, where trachoma is also a major public health issue.

Bhoosnurmath says addressing the root causes of vision loss comes with a host of downstream benefits, including improved access to education and health services, gender equality, and economic growth.

“Today, when our teams visit villages in Sinazongwe, they see families growing food right in their own backyards, which they can sell in the market,” he says. “Livestock are well-fed and children are smiling.”

More than 500 miles away, in the community of Lukanda B, in central Zambia, rehabilitating the local borehole in 2022 brought locally available, safe water to residents for the first time in 17 years.

“When the borehole broke down in 2005, I was only able to wash my children’s clothes once or twice a month,” says Mutinta, who lives in Lukanda B. “Now, I’m able to wash clothes almost every day, because there is clean and safe water nearby.”

Mutinta says her 16-year-old daughter, Memory, would frequently miss or be late for school because she had to walk long distances to fetch water for the family, a task that traditionally falls to girls. When Memory did attend school, she was often tired, and her schoolwork suffered.

“I’m happy that my daughter will now be able to attend school regularly,” Mutinta adds.

Zambia is one of 10 countries across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where Operation Eyesight is bringing life-changing eye health care to communities that need it most.

Help prevent blindness and transform entire communities today. Visit operationeyesight.com/USA to make a donation or learn more.

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Operation Eyesight an international development organization working to prevent blindness and restore sight.

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