Focus on water and health in Vietnam -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Focus on water and health in Vietnam

By Kathryn Reid

No matter how humble the place you may visit, a guest in rural North Vietnam is welcomed with a cup of the locally-grown green tea. The customary gesture has a sincere meaning, since the Vietnamese consider the green tea grown in their country to be an especially healthy drink. But to trace back some of those tiny cups of tea to the water source might be to see a very different story.

According to the Vietnam Ministry of Health, water and sanitation-related diseases account for about half of the commonly-contracted illnesses in the country. In children under five, unsafe water and poor sanitation contribute to a high rate of malnutrition and worm-related diseases.

A survey published in 2007 by the Ministry of Health and UNICEF outlines the needs for improvement and the health consequences that go with them. Clearly, improving health through better water and sanitation is a high priority of the Vietnamese government and it is increasingly a priority of Habitat for Humanity Vietnam.

In My Tho provincial center of Kien Giang in the Mekong Delta, Habitat’s collaboration in a government initiative for health and safety resulted in improvements to toilets and bathing areas for up to 75 percent of the 2000 housing microfinance clients served in the past two years. Where previously most toilets had been “fishpond toilets”—a bench over the river bank—well-built and maintained toilets are the replacement.

In the Red River Delta of the north, as in the Mekong Delta of the south, rural Vietnamese live a water-intensive life following the monsoonal cycles of the rice crop and the tides of river fishing. Yet they are discovering the limits to these seemingly unlimited resources, and suffering changes in lifestyle and health as pollution increases and fishing stocks diminish.

In a baseline survey of low-income farming and fishing families in Dong Xa village about an hour’s drive outside Hanoi and the Vietnam site for the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project 2009, more than half of the households said they used river water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing. Over half said they regularly defecated directly in the river or on the riverbank.

Perhaps even more important than the sound roof and walls of their new homes are the wells, hygienic toilets and bathing areas that will be supplied to the 32 families who participate in the Carter Work Project. Public toilets in the community center and church also will be upgraded and crews of homeowner families are making concrete covers for open drains as they make blocks for their new houses.

However, focusing on structural solutions is not enough. As Habitat Vietnam staff survey water and sanitation needs for prospective projects and return to evaluate outcomes in communities they have served, they have determined that to create better health outcomes they must do more than build hygienic toilets. A new project getting under way with funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) will have a strong component of Information, Education and Communication (IEC) to support behavior change and likely lead to more such projects throughout the country.

Kathryn Reid, a global response specialist at Habitat for Humanity International, is on assignment to the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Vietnam.