News / Asia

Safe Water Lowers Absenteeism

A Cambodian school girl runs home after her morning primary school in Rokar Tnong village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011.  (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
A Cambodian school girl runs home after her morning primary school in Rokar Tnong village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

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Joe DeCapua
Reducing absenteeism in schools in developing countries may be as simple as providing students with safe drinking water. A new study indicates that, but researchers are not sure why.


The study was done at eight schools in Cambodia where the attendance records of more than 3,500 students were checked. Half received the safe drinking water -- which was treated with ultraviolet light and not chlorine – the other half did not.

Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, said, “This study was actually part of a slightly bigger study where we were looking at the impact of providing clean water on diarrheal disease in children in Cambodia. And as part of that the charity that provides this water said, well, we also give water free to the schools, is there any point in looking at whether it affects absenteeism in the school. And we looked and we found this quite strikingly strong association between providing drinking water and reduced absenteeism, at least during the dry season.”

Hunter and his colleagues found that children without access to clean water were two and a half times more likely to be absent.

“This was certainly substantially more than I was expecting to be honest,” he said.

Each school receiving the safe drinking water was given a 20 liter bottle per class each day. The cost is very low -- about $1.40 per child per year – and is paid for by the charity One Thousand and One Fountains.

Hunter said that there was no difference in absenteeism during the rainy season. There could be several reasons for this.

“I’ve visited in the rainy season and it’s not necessarily that easy to move around. So part of it might be that children actually could get to school because of localized flooding. The other issue is of course children during the wet season may well have been kept off school to help with the paddy fields. And it might well also be that the fact that during the wet season children don’t get as thirsty and there’s more water around.”

Now, it may appear obvious that providing clean and safe drinking would reduce absenteeism. Not so, said Hunter.

“Initially, we did think it might be because of improved health – because of drinking less contaminated water. And that may well have contributed, but it probably wasn’t the main driver.”

The researchers looked at one school for clues.

“In one of the schools,” Hunter said, “the contractor wasn’t delivering as much water as he should have done. And we found in the weeks where he delivered a lot of water absenteeism rates were low and the weeks that he didn’t deliver water absenteeism rates were high. So that would be too quick if it was an infectious thing from drinking contaminated water.”

So, the reason remains a mystery and more research is needed. Perhaps you could say the students simply had a – thirst for knowledge. Hunter laughed and said, “Yes, you could indeed, yes.”

Professor Hunter adds that it’s unclear whether the results from the Cambodia study can be applied directly to schools in sub-Saharan Africa. He describes education as “one of the most important factors that enables children to fulfill their potential later in life and reduce poverty.”

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