Zambia: Farmers use activated charcoal to prevent diarrhea

| November 10, 2023

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In Mwachikwasha village, near Zambia's Chongwe River, residents face a dire situation as the river's water levels dwindle and pollution wreaks havoc on farming and drinking water quality. This crisis has led to severe health issues, particularly diarrhea, among the villagers, including young children. However, a local resident named Elidah Mukamambo has found a solution to combat diarrhea: activated charcoal. Activated charcoal, heated at high temperatures, is used by Mrs. Mukamambo and others in the village to purify water. Infusing the charcoal in water overnight increases its surface area, which allows it to absorb toxins and the bacteria that cause diarrhea. While efforts are being made to reduce the pollution of the river, in the meantime, Mrs. Mukamambo's method is a practical remedy for the villagers who rely on the contaminated Chongwe River for their water needs.

Elidah Mukamambo lives in Mwachikwasha village, near central Zambia’s Chongwe River. The amount of water in the river is diminishing every year, and pollution has negatively affected farming and the quality of drinking water for the many people who rely on the river. The result for many is health concerns like diarrhea. But Mrs. Mukumambo has a solution to prevent diarrhea: activated charcoal

In recent years, the rains have been erratic in Chongwe district in Zambia’s Lusaka province. The big Chongwe River almost dries out even before the hot season starts. The river has been the major source of water for the villages and livestock along its course, including people who live in Lusaka city. But now there are problems. 

Mrs. Mukumambo explains: “About 20 years ago, we had an outbreak of diarrhea in this village. Every time we drank water from the river, we experienced painful stomach cramps and purged very watery stool. I remembered how my late mother would activate charcoal and mix it with water for us to drink—and that’s how the diarrhea stopped.”

Mrs. Mukumambo and others in her village are now using activated charcoal to treat diarrhea. The charcoal is activated by heating it at a very high temperature. This gives the charcoal a larger surface area, which makes it more porous, and able to absorb toxins, chemicals, and other unwanted materials.

Mrs. Mukumambo adds a handful of activated charcoal to a gourd full of water, allows it to infuse overnight, and in the morning scoops out the clean water and transfers it into another container ready for drinking.

Because activated charcoal absorbs toxins, once it’s consumed, it absorbs the bacteria that cause diarrhea and lead a person to purge several times a day. Once someone stops purging, they are fine.

Lute Mwalusaka is a farmer with three children who lives in Mwachikwasha village in Chongwe district. She relies on the river for farming and drinking water, but knows that the quality of the water is worse than it used to be because of pollution, which is leading to health problems like diarrhea. 

Mrs. Mwalusaka explains: “My youngest daughter Thabo is two years old and loves drinking water. But now she can hardly hold a cup of water because of dehydration as a result of diarrhea because the water from Chongwe River is contaminated.”  

To try to treat diarrhea, Mrs. Mwalusaka prepares an oral rehydration solution from the clinic, but this only stops diarrhea for a few weeks. 

Sister Florence Tembo is a midwife at Chongwe Level 1 hospital who treats patients with diarrhea. She explains: “The problem is that the water has high levels of pollutants from debris thrown by garbage collectors near the river and chemical waste from farms and industries. I was not surprised when I saw Mrs. Mwalusaka and people from her village bringing in their children and presenting watery and smelling stool.”

Miss Tembo says that most diarrhea cases occur when people drink unboiled water from the river, or when people eat something out of the ordinary like wild fruits, birds, or small animals like squirrels that die on their own.

Miss Tembo says that Mrs. Mwalusaka’s surroundings were dirty and her drinking water was left uncovered in a bucket. She explains: “I talked to Mrs. Mwalusaka about it and explained the dangers of having such dirty surroundings. It was the same with other houses in the village. I explained to them the importance of having a clean environment to defeat diseases like diarrhea.”

Chiefs are also helping to raise awareness in their communities. Jones Chunga is a village headman who formed a committee to help the Zambia Environmental Management Agency educate people on the dangers of polluting the river. The committee is also encouraging communities to use activated charcoal to purify their drinking water.

Miss Tembo says that collecting water samples from the people in the village showed that the river water was contaminated with high levels of salmonella, among other bacteria and pollutants 

She says: “It is important for the community to boil water for drinking. But the problem is that the people always complain that the water does not have a taste once boiled, and that they didn’t like it.”

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