Children lead the way in spreading the clean water message in Viet Nam

Published: 4 July 2011 16:32 CET

By Joe Cropp in Viet Nam

Children are leading the way in an innovative education program that is improving the health of Viet Nam’s most isolated communities.

Thanh carefully washes his little cousin’s hands with soap and water before rinsing them under the tap. He makes sure three-year-old Lee’s fingernails are all clean before wiping her face with a large wet cloth and then sending her inside for dinner. Seven-year-old Thanh then turns to his own hands.

Thanh lives with his extended family in the mountains of northern Viet Nam. He learned the importance of washing his hands at his school, where the Red Cross has been piloting a hygiene education program that uses puppets, games, exercises and role-playing to encourage primary school children to understand the importance of personal cleanliness and hygiene, and discuss it with their friends and family.

Primary school teacher Hoang Thi Lien, who has been teaching in the minority communities of northern Viet Nam for 13 years, says hygiene and sanitation education in schools can make significant steps to improving the health of these isolated communities.

“The Red Cross program takes advantage of the fact that it’s easier to change the habits of children than it is of adults,” she says. “Children are naturally inquisitive and eager to learn.”

“It also creates an effective avenue to extend these messages to older people in the mountain hamlets, who may not have access to hygiene information or the inclination to follow it. In effect, it’s the community educating itself through children.”

Often only accessible by foot, many of these hamlets don’t have access to clean water and there is limited understanding of sanitation and hygiene. In the most northerly province of Cao Bang, for example, less than five per cent of the population use soap for hand washing, and bathing facilities are limited or non-existent.

Waterborne diseases are widespread in Viet Nam, and more than 20,000 people die each year through lack of access to clean water and poor sanitation and hygiene. Most of these deaths are in the more remote parts of the country where, traditionally, hillside communities have harvested rainwater or collected water from far away sources and stored it in holes in the ground.

Sacrificing hygiene

Viet Nam Red Cross project officer Trieu Tuyet Mai Huong says that this means the water is often contaminated by animals, resulting in the spread of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, hepatitis, and typhoid.

“When there is a shortage of water, villagers have to make sacrifices and concentrate on the immediate needs, such as water for cooking and drinking,” she says. “Through necessity, hygiene is often the first to go.”

“Not only was the quality and quantity of water limited, but there was a lack of knowledge about water and hygiene among many of the communities. We realised we had to focus on improving both the ‘hardware’ and the ‘software’ when developing our water programmes.”

For Thanh and his family, the answer to quantity is the water storage tank that the Red Cross helped install next to their home. Where once they had to walk for two hours to collect water, it now flows freely at their doorstep. Fed from natural springs, it provides enough water for all the family’s needs, from drinking and cooking to washing clothes and personal hygiene.

The quality comes from a small water filter that now sits beside the tank. The concrete filter is built by Red Cross trained volunteers with local resources and uses a mix of sand and shale to filter out the dangerous bacteria, viruses, parasites and other impurities. The third crucial component comes through Red Cross education programs that are teaching mountain communities about the importance of hygiene, often with children leading the way. Local Red Cross branches are receiving crucial technical and financial support from Australian Red Cross and German Red Cross.

At Thanh’s home, a crowd is slowly building by the water tank as his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts come in from the field to wash themselves at the taps before following the seven-year old inside.