In Viet Nam, a 'total sanitation' programme makes progress in rural areas
By Sandra Bisin
VINH THANH, Viet Nam, 5 May 2011 – Vinh Thanh village is nestled in the rice-producing Mekong Delta region of southern Viet Nam. Residents came together one sunny morning recently to attend a very special performance organized by local health workers.
“Today we will invite you to see with your eyes where diseases like diarrhoea – which represents a huge problem for our community – come from, and how to get rid of them,” said health worker Mr. Binh to the cheerful large audience. But first he enlisted their help in drawing a map of the village.
'Walk of shame’
Using bits of thread to define the main road, blue lint for the local river, and leaves to symbolise the paddy fields, a volunteer progressively mapped out the village on the ground in front of everyone.
Mr. Binh was good-humoured and other villagers soon joined in with enthusiasm as he asked them to define local landmarks with bits of paper and sandstones: houses, the Buddhist temple, the school.
Then it was on to the real purpose of the mapping. “Now, people have to eat every day and then they have to release it somehow. Where does this happen?” asked Mr. Binh. Embarrassed, the spectators’ faces wore uneasy smiles. But it didn’t last long. Giggles soon erupted from the audience. “Come on! Each one of you take yellow powder and show me where this happens,” said Mr. Binh.
Volunteers marked the various defecation sites around the village. They were later asked to go visit such spots all around the paddy fields, where they were informed about the high risk of contamination when germs in human waste mixed into the food they eat and water they drink.
This ‘walk of shame’ helped the community understand the harmful consequences that their current defecation practices were having on their health and well-being. Calculating the health costs incurred due to diseases related to unhygienic practices was also part of the process.
“The ‘walk of shame’ we did in the village, looking at all the risks we take when we defecate in the fields, was a real shock for me,” said Vo Van Ngan, a rice farmer. “It made me understand all this was about making sure my children are growing up healthy.”
He spent just under $600 two months ago to build his own toilets. “My wife is a street food vendor, we do not make much money,” he said. “Of course I realised it was expensive to build latrines, but we know it is worth it.”
The workshop held in Vinh Thanh village was part a new ‘Community-Led Total Sanitation’ (CLTS) project being piloted by UNICEF and partners in three provinces of Viet Nam. It has already proved successful in other countries.
Only two in every five families in the village of Vinh Thanh have toilets. Despite substantial achievements in providing safe water, progress in sanitation and hygiene across Viet Nam is still lagging, especially in rural areas, where 70 per cent of the country’s 88 million inhabitants live.
Now in its second year, ‘Community-Led Total Sanitation’ has helped hundreds of communities analyze their sanitation situation and practices. Communities are then empowered to take collective action to become an ‘open-defecation-free’ community.
“The communities are showing great ownership of the CLTS initiative and are very enthusiastic about the approach, which is not only improving their sanitation status, but also enhancing their dignity,” said Rajen Kumar Sharma, head of the UNICEF Viet Nam Provincial Child-Friendly Programme, which supports the provision of integrated services for children in six provinces in Viet Nam.
‘An eye opener’
Vo Thi Mit lives in Vinh Binh, Vinh Thanh’s neighbouring village. She had modern toilets built outside her home following a sensitisation session six months ago. “It has been an eye-opener for me,” she said. “I would never consider going back to the fields. I feel disgusted by the old habits.”
Through the ‘Community-Led Total Sanitation’ initiative, progress towards ‘total sanitation’ in rural communities has been impressive. Since 2009, 33 villages across five provinces have been declared ‘open-defecation-free’. To build on this, the approach is now already being replicated in more areas by the Government of Viet Nam.