Vientiane, 22 March 2016
Water is one of the most essential substances for life on Earth. All plants and animals need access to clean water to survive and thrive. Humans place enormous pressure on the world's finite water resources and when communities don't have access to clean and reliable water supply, they experience many challenges.
For many Lao communities, the Mekong River is their only source of water, raising the risk of water-borne diseases, as the same water resources are used for consumption, animal rearing and farming activities. Photo: UNCDF Lao PDR
To recognise the important role water plays in all our lives as well as the need for managing fresh water resources in a long-term sustainable way, World Water Day is marked on 22 March every year.
In 2015, about 91 per cent of the world's population had access to an improved drinking water source such as piped water, public wells, public taps or boreholes. It is estimated that in 2015, 4.2 billion people received water through a piped connection and an additional 2.4 billion have access to water from other improved sources.
However, more than 1.2 billion people around the world still lack access to clean drinking water, exposing them to a myriad of water-related issues and health risks.
In Laos, the Mekong River is the lifeline of the country for the millions of people living along the river and its tributaries. 'Mekong' actually means 'Mother River' in Lao language, signifying the close relationship the people of Lao have traditionally had with the country's most important water resource. The Mekong River is one of the world's largest river systems, and the most important water resource in the region, flowing 4,909 kilometers through six countries; covering China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The millions of people living along the Mekong River, from its source in China to where it meets the sea in Cambodia rely on it for their livelihoods as well as essential household activities, from fishing and farming activities to bathing and collecting water for drinking and domestic chores.
For many communities, the Mekong River is their only source of water, raising the risk of water-borne diseases as the same water resources are used for consumption as all other animal rearing and farming activities. In Lao PDR, the lack of clean water sources is responsible for the transmission of schistosomiasis, a condition that causes blood loss and tissue damage, as well as other waterborne diseases.
The World Health Organization in Laos joins forces with the Ministry of Health eliminate schistosomiasis in the Mekong region.
Schistosomiasis is an acute and chronic parasitic disease which is endemic along a stretch of 250 kilometres along the Mekong, in Khong and Mounlapamok districts of Champassack and it is caused by blood flukes (trematode worms) of the genus Schistosoma and river snail Neotricula aperta. Transmission of the disease can occure from person to person (through open defication) and when people come into contact with infested water, usually when entering a river to collect water for recreation or work purposes.
In Laos, a new approach was needed to tackle the disease head-on and engage the different organizations working on the problem with the local authorities. A community-led water safety project was developed to meet this need.
The project was started in Hatsaykhoun Village in Khong District, Champassack Province, home to approximately 1,600 people from 250 households. The goal of the project was to improve sanitation coverage and access to clean water, and in doing so to reduce incidence of schistosomiasis, as well as soil-transmitted and foodborne diseases through improved water sources.
The success of this project saw an increased in the proportion of households in the village that have access to improved water and sanitation facilities, from less than 60 percent in 2015 when the project started to 80 percent in early 2016. Hatsaykhoun Village School also now for the first time has a functional water supply and latrines.
Collaboration with local authorities and community leaders was instrumental to the success of the project. The village began by setting up a 'water safety plan team' which was comprised of seven elected volunteer members, including a representative from the local Lao Women's Union.
The team was tasked with promoting, overseeing and monitoring the construction of improved sanitation facilities, conducting inspections, monitoring water quality, assessing risks and supporting facility maintenance and repairs.
The community-led activities also included setting up household water treatment and storage facilities to reduce the exposure to the harmful schistosomiasis parasite, and creating pens for free-roaming livestock to prevent contamination of the river, the village's main water resource.
Facilitated by WHO, the village participated in a mass immunization, the most successful method to reduce the prevalence schistosomiasis in heavily infested areas developed over the last 10 years.
The way forward
Speaking on the occasion of World Water Day, WHO Representative to Lao People's Democratic Republic, Dr Juliet Fleischl said,
"I am pleased to learn that the pilot project in Hatsaykhoun village has been successful and we will see a scale up of these community-led projects in Khong and Mounlapamok districts of Champassack Province; ensuring that communities have access to clean water sources and eliminating Schistosomiasis remain a priority of WHO activities in the country. Let us continue to reach the 1.2 billion people who still do not have access to clean water on World Water Day."
Find out more about WHO's work in Lao PDR here.