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Owning Access: Water and Sanitation in Rural Vietnam

Community members cleaning road
Nam Phong's community members help keep roads clean.

“Our children are so much different from us!” marvels Bui Van Dan with a happy smile. The father of two is a village leader in Nam Phong commune in the rural, mountainous terrain of northern Vietnam. “They are afraid of living in a dirty environment!”

Given the living conditions that Bui has known all of his life, the desire for a clean environment is something surprising and new he’s hearing from his community’s next generation. But it’s important to remember that in developing countries, sanitation is a luxury — a rare commodity. This was certainly true until recently in Nam Phong, home to more than 3,600 people.

Four years ago, garbage and animal waste covered Nam Phong’s roads. Villagers used the area’s streams for washing, drinking and cooking — the same streams where people would swim and animals would bathe. These waterways were also contaminated with runoff from the area’s hills, where people went to the bathroom because they had no latrines. Hand washing and soap were rare.

“In the past, we were all infected with scabies and ringworm, and people often had diarrhea,” Bui remembers.

No more. Beginning in 2008, as part of an initiative to improve sanitation, ChildFund helped villages in Nam Phong construct latrines as well as water supply systems to bring clean water to families. We also trained adults and children to maintain these new facilities and apply hygienic practices. ChildFund also helped each of the villages create a sanitation promotion team — a woman, a village health volunteer and a village head who would mobilize community members around using and maintaining their new access to clean water and hygiene.

The teams organized discussions in their villages to identify residents’ specific environmental concerns and together developed checklists of hygienic and environmentally mindful behaviors. These lists crystallized into a slogan — “clean roads, clean houses and clean public places” — that helped keep people focused on what they wanted for their communities.

In fact, the villagers enjoy the work, because it is their work on their environment — a blend of collective effort and healthy competition among children and families that keeps the road clear of trash and animal waste, compels people to sustain hygienic practices and even inspires them to plant trees.

“For a long time, my village hasn’t had a child or adult with diarrhea or skin infections,” says Bui. Now cleared roads are the norm rather than the exception. Young trees brighten the landscape. Streams run fresh and clean.

“Such effort from a small community will lead to big effects for the planet,” says Tran Thi Kieu Hanh, water and sanitation program manager for ChildFund in Vietnam.

Tangible results continue to inspire healthy behavior, and everyone in the communities, old and young, plays their part.

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