Safe water – everyone’s business in Gobi Altai

WASH programme

by Ariunzaya Davaa
09 December 2019

 “I have always thought that water was the business of the environment department. However, as we started implementing water, sanitation and hygiene programme with UNICEF, I understood that not only one department, but everyone should care about water. It was “an eye opener” says Ms Erdenebileg, the head of the Social Policy Department of Gobi Altai province.

In Mongolia, the rate of access to improved water sources (64%, MICS/SISS2018) and sanitation (69%, MICS/SISS2018) for rural households are significantly low compared to urban households—98% for drinking water and sanitation respectively (MICS/SISS2018). This situation is worrisome, considering that unsafe water and unsafe hygiene practices are the main causes of diarrhoea and hepatitis in the world. The former is the third largest cause of under-five mortality and the latter is becoming endemic and accounts for 22 per cent of communicable diseases.

The most important causes of low access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are related to limited quality infrastructure. This is further worsened by the effects of climate change on already limited and declining freshwater sources, increased desertification and pollution, remoteness of populations and an overall low prioritization at the policy and budgetary level.

UNICEF staff at smart water kiosk
UNICEF Mongolia/2019/Ariunzaya D
UNICEF and local specialists at the smart water kiosk

“I have always thought that water was the business of the environment department. However, as we started implementing water, sanitation and hygiene programme with UNICEF, I understood that not only one department, but everyone should care about water."

Ms Erdenebileg, the head of the Social Policy Department of Gobi Altai province

Challenges

UNICEF has been implementing its climate resilient water, sanitation and hygiene programme in Gobi-Altai province with the financial and technical support of Korea International Cooperation Agency. The reason for selecting this province was that access to  safe water and improved sanitation were lower than a national average.

Located in the western part of the country the province has its own unique features which creates its own challenges in ensuring safe drinking water. For instance, Gobi-Altai province has fewer rivers and lakes which means fewer sources for drinking water. Even though there are groundwater wells available, the quality of water is low with number of heavy metals discovered in the latest study. In some villages, it is impossible to dig out wells, so people are dependent on transported water from nearby soum/village.

Most of the kindergartens, schools and dormitories in Gobi-Altai are not connected to central water system. So children and young people are not able to drink safe water, let alone use sanitation facilities and take hot showers.

 

collecting water from the smart kiosk
UNICEF Mongolia/2019/Ariunzaya D
11-year old Purebvaatar is collecting water from the smart kiosk with his sister

UNICEF Action

As the local government started implementing UNICEF programme on WASH, the knowledge and understanding about the importance of safe and quality water has increased among not only officials but local communities too. Gobi-Altai province conducted a water quality testing and discovered that several types of heavy metals were found in their drinking water. So the government took immediate action to develop and approve Water Safety Plans for all soum centers and villages including Altai city- the province center.  

They have also set up a Water Safety Council with 14 members responsible for overseeing the workplan on water safety across the province. To increase access to drinking water, the province with the support of many organizations including UNICEF turned their water wells (water distribution points) into smart water kiosks enabling people to get water 24/7. UNICEF provided 3,000 copies of smart cards and technical and financial monitoring software.

There is also Water Safety Volunteer Team in place who have been establishing hygiene areas around the water kiosks.

UNICEF officer speaking to local engineer
UNICEF Mongolia/2019/Ariunzaya D
On the left, UNICEF Mongolia WASH Officer Mr Batnasan N. is speaking to the local engineer Ms Baigalmaa. On the right, the screen shows all smart water kiosks and their status

“Smart water kiosks are truly magical. Before the wells or water kiosks operated on a schedule. So if you came late from work, you would not be able to get water until it opens the next day”

Ms. Baigalmaa, the engineer from the local water and sanitation service company

“Smart water kiosks are truly magical. Before the wells or water kiosks operated on a schedule. So if you came late from work, you would not be able to get water until it opens the next day” says Ms Baigalmaa, the engineer from the water and sanitation service company, owned by the local government. “You have no idea how this access makes the lives of thousands of households easier and convenient”.

Purevbaatar is only 11 years old, but as an eldest boy in the family he helps around the house. He has a sister who is 9 years old. They come to smart water kiosk three times a week to collect water. Their family had just moved from another province, Khovd.

“It is convenient. We never had anything like this before back in Khovd province” says Purevdorj’s mother. “I think Gobi-Altai is the only province that has smart water kiosks in this western region, right?”

From the lesson learned from the experience of Gobi-Altai, now UNICEF  is trying to replicate the installation of the smart water kiosk in Bayankhongor province, one of UNICEF ’s target provinces.

“Safe drinking water is essential in ensuring healthy growth and development of a child. With the great leadership and firm commitment from the local government as well as the active community participation in Gobi-Altai, UNICEF and partners will continue to work in Gobi Altai and beyond so that every child can have access to safe drinking water” says Mr Batnasan Nyamsuren, WASH officer at UNICEF Mongolia.