Real lives


Water, environment and sanitation

Ms. Kim Yong Suk
© ECHO/Thomas Pfeiffer
Ms. Kim Yong Suk, in Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong province tells her story to UNICEF's WES project officer.

Water is a source of life for children, but it can also be a deadly carrier of disease. In DPR Korea, one of the main causes for concern is the high incidence of diarrhoeal diseases and infection in children. Contaminated water, use of unsanitary latrines and unhygienic practices reinforce the cycle of malnutrition that exists and contribute to high infant and child morbidity and mortality.

A large portion of the population relies on piped systems for their drinking water and the deterioration of water supply systems has meant that the supply of water is meeting only 20-25% of the needs. The deterioration of the water supply system has resulted in the significant decrease in the supply of potable water. This is evidenced by the decline in the daily water production from 304 litres per capita in 1994 to 289 litres per capita in 1998 (Government figures cited in OCHA DPRK Sector Report: Water and Environmental Sanitation, June 2002).  Access to piped water dropped from 83% to just 53% during this same timeframe according to the Government (5th Ministerial consultation for the East Asia and the Pacific region in May 2001).  For many of the cities, the infrastructure has completely deteriorated and water is only available 2-4 hours per day.

Ms. Kim Yong Suk, mother of two in Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong province, explains the impact of the unavailability of in adequate water supply has had on her family.

“It takes me more than 30 minutes to carry water from the nearby river to my home.  Everyday, I spent more than half the day carrying water so that my family has enough water for drinking, cooking and washing, and for kitchen and daily housework.”

Still, the quality of water heavily influences the health of children.  The water that Ms. Kim spends hours collecting daily is causing illness in her family.  The river is heavily contaminated.  Ms. Kim again says, “I don’t remember how many times my family and I have had to visit the hospital because of diarrhoea or other water borne related illness”.

Sadly, Ms. Kim’s story is not unique.  The economic crisis in DPRK has meant that the government has little resources available to respond to the enormous needs for water supply throughout the country.  UNICEF water, environment and sanitation (WES) project is responding to the situation through two sub-projects: water supply rehabilitation and the improvement and construction of new sanitation facilities.

Due to huge requirements and limited resources, the WES project has focused most of it’s interventions on three disadvantaged counties.  A 2002 assessment of water supply and sanitation needs in these three counties indicated that 80% of the water supply needs of the population were unmet.

The completion and handover of the water supply systems in these three counties was one of the most successful achievements of the WES programme in 2003 and 2004.  This project has a total of 71,805 direct beneficiaries – including both urban and rural dwellers. A very simple technology was introduced for these projects in the DPRK for the first time. This is the gravity-fed system in which clean running water from springs and the hills and mountains flows down to the end-users without the need for electricity or pumping mechanisms. This is a very simple technology and the cost of both investment and operation is low.

With the availability of improved sanitation due to a new water supply system, UNICEF’s sanitation project focused on providing nursery and school children with proper sanitation and hand-washing facilities.  School sanitation was also encouraged to meet the needs of pupils, and girls in particular.  During 2002-2003, a total of 83 sanitation facilities (separate toilets for girls and boys, bathrooms and washrooms) were upgraded or newly installed in targeted child-care institutions, primary and secondary schools and health institutions, benefiting 6,000 children, 1,000 caregivers and 2,000 pregnant women.  In 2004, the sanitation project will extend its activities to households.

Reports from the field indicate there has been a decrease in the incidence of water borne diseases such as diarrhoea since the start of the project.  The DPRK Government and UNICEF have agreed to encourage and expand this piloting scheme to seven additional cities and counties during 2004-2006.

Digging the trench in Hoeryong City
Digging the trench for the UNICEF supported gravity-flow water supply system in Hoeryong City, April 2004.

And that is why UNICEF is talking to Ms. Kim in Hoeryong City. Hoeryong City was selected as one of the additional piloting locations to receive a gravity-flow water supply system and improved sanitation facilities.  In March the Government began to mobilize people from Hoeryong City to dig the trench for the water to flow down from the mountain spring to the city.  Residents of the city, such as Ms. Kim, are pleased to be part of the activity as they are extremely anxious to see the completion of the project.

By December 2004, at least 80% of the population of Hoeryong city will have interrupted access to clean drinking water, children in child care institutions and pregnant women at the maternity hospital will have access to improved sanitation and hand-washing facilities, and boys and girls will have sanitary and segregated bathrooms at school.

The entire WES project in 2004 is expected to reach approximately 2.5 million people. Nevertheless, a sustainable response to the control of diarrhoea and malnutrition depends on further investment and improvement of hygiene practices, water and environmental sanitation systems.  The demonstrative models that UNICEF has implemented in the pilot counties need to be brought to scale where appropriate and replicated throughout the country in order to address the entire problem that is facing the country.





WES funding figures

US$10,000 covers the cost of building one latrine for a primary school, US$200 pays for one latrine for a rural household, and US$750,000 pays for the rehabilitation of a water supply system for one county.

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