Monday, November 18, 2013

Toilets for all

World Toilet Day, 2013 (c) UNICEF/2013
Weaving his way through a menagerie of chickens, ducks, dogs and pigs, past his family’s wooden stilt house and a dirt playground, fifth-grader Somkhan, 14, points at two small concrete outhouses at the side of the school grounds.

“This is where we go to the toilet now,” he says.

Two taps for hand washing stand close to the basic latrines, which serve the primary school in Don Xai village, a remote community of 50 households nestled in the dramatic landscape of mountainous Phongsaly province – one of the poorest in land-locked Lao PDR.

Don Xai village received support from UNICEF in 2009 to build a gravity-fed water system and school latrines, which provide improved water and sanitation to the 220 inhabitants.

As a collaborative effort, donor funds provide a portion of the financial resources to carry out the work while the local community contributes sand, gravel and human labour to the project. Local volunteers are also elected to oversee the maintenance of the system. 

The changes are clearly noticeable to Somkhan. “Before the water system was installed I had to make two 30 minute trips down the hill to collect water,” he says. “Now I have more time for sleeping and studying and the water taps are much more convenient.”

Six hours drive further along a bumpy, single-track road another fifth-grade student – 13-year-old Khamphong from Ban Hin primary school, Nhot ou district – has a different story to tell.

“We don’t have a school latrine, so this is where I go to the toilet.” He points to the thick forest that surrounds his village on all sides. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep my hands clean.”

These two young boys are similar in age and interests, but they will experience substantially different lives, simply because of their different water and sanitation conditions.

Research shows that children like Somkhan – who have access to improved water sources and basic sanitation – enjoy much better health than those without. Khamphong, on the other hand, faces a much greater risk of contracting illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia – major causes of child mortality in countries like Lao PDR. Unfortunately, Khamphong’s story is not an anomaly in Lao PDR, where only 38 per cent of the rural population has access to improved water and sanitation services (MICS 2006).

However, thanks to new donor funding and UNICEF support, Khamphong and his classmates at Ban Hin primary school will soon have a different story to share and the potential for a brighter future.

Later this year they will receive support from UNICEF to construct school latrines and an accompanying improved water source. This will lead not only to a cleaner school and village environment, but also a reduced workload for women and children – on whom the task of water collection typically falls – freeing up time for other tasks and studying for school.

Khamphong from Ban Hin primary school already has a sense of what the changes will mean for himself and his classmates. “I think things will be a lot cleaner; we will be able to get rid of the faeces in a better way and it will be easier to wash our hands.”

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By Gillian McFarland

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