ASIA-PACIFIC feature story for Democratic People's Republic of Korea

© UNICEF/Democratic People’s Republic of Korea/2009/O Song Guk

UNICEF water and sanitation specialists and local government officials check the county reservoir, the safe water source for 40,000 people in rural Tongrim County. Water supply improvements have contributed to a decline in diarrhoeal diseases in children.


Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, September 2009 - Walking up the flight of stairs with Mr. Jong Yong Gyu and his young daughter, Tung, to their seventh floor apartment, it was easy to see why they were so excited about having clean water come directly into their water taps at home - no more hauling of buckets of water up all those stairs.

“Before the new water system came to our building, we had no access to water in our home. There was water a few hours a day when the power was running, but we had to walk down to the ground floor to collect it,” Mr. Jong explains.
There is an even greater reason why they appreciate the new water system.  “It was worse when there was no water due to power cuts,” Tung adds. “Then we had to go collect water from the river; often we got sick because the river water is not clean.”

Access to piped water in the country began to significantly decline in the 1990s.  At the same time, river water became significantly polluted because of population pressure and untreated industrial waste. Power shortages only made matters worse, forcing residents to rely on unclean river water or shallow wells, which are sometimes contaminated from fertilizers and animal and human waste.

The new system uses nothing but gravity to run clean water from the upper reaches of the mountains directly into water taps in homes, schools and hospitals. In addition, the gravity-fed water structures are environment-friendly and require no electricity.

UNICEF has worked with local government and other partners to bring a dependable source of clean water to hundreds of thousands of people by installing gravity-fed water systems in 10 counties across the country.  The Ministry of City Management, the National Academy of Sciences, the County Coordinating Committees and other national partners provide detailed evaluations, assessments and expert staff while UNICEF offers technical resources and training support in the design, set-up and monitoring of the new water system.

Mr. Jong’s county was one of the first areas to receive water directly from the country’s clean and abundant mountain water sources.  The positive impact on the health of the children is evident.

“The children were often sick and some missed school,” confirms Ms. Yun Myong Ok, director of the main kindergarten school.  “We have over 400 children that come to the school and before the new water system came we had limited water, and so we had limited ways to keep kids clean. The kids couldn’t always wash after going to the toilet or using the playground. It was a real problem.”

Ms. Yun then says with appreciation: “Now with the gravity-fed water, children’s hygiene has improved a lot and we have more time to focus on them because we don’t have to go and fetch water from the river. We can now tell children to wash their hands more frequently as water is available in abundance.” 

The county’s hospital director Mr. Kim Chol Su also praises the impact of the new water source on improving the well-being of children. “Summer is the worst season for diarrhoeal diseases,” he said.  “We see many cases here in the summer months, but since the water supply has come to the county, we have seen a sharp decline, especially among children.”

“The new water system has also been of much help to us at the hospital. Our water needs are great,” he explains. “We need about 110 litres a day to produce solutions like glucose. We need about 200 litres a day for cooking and in addition we need water for washing patients, cleaning the hospital and linens. We can now use water based on demand, and as required for our patients. For a hospital, this is critical.” The Ministry of Public Health also provides extra resources to clean and maintain the hospital environment.

With 80 per cent of the Democratic Republic of Korea covered in mountains with a wealth of clean water, UNICEF continues to work with the Ministry of City Management and other experts to spread the benefits of gravity-fed water throughout the country.  The Ministry is also nearing the point where it can design and build the gravity-fed system using its own technical resources.