Bringing Clean Water to the Highlands of Viet Nam

Feature | 28 June 2012

From clean tap water to new canals, a development project brings liquid relief to the rural poor in Viet Nam.

Quang Tri, Viet Nam - Lien, 40, began accompanying her mother on daily walks when she was 7 - and since then made the trip many times a day for many years. In an age-old tradition, the pair carried buckets of untreated spring water on their backs to the family home.

In the Central region of Quang Tri, Dakrong District, the women and girls of the Van Kieu ethnic minority bring water home, while the men work in the fields or in the forest. Lien, the mother of four children, still remembers the long hours that she and her mother, and later her daughters, had to spend collecting water from kilometers (km) away.

"Before, it was all for God to decide. We used to depend on rain only. Now we can decide when to grow our rice."

- Nguyen Thi Nong, farmer and beneficiary

"The worst thing was having to go in the evening when you were already exhausted after a long day," says Lien. And the quality of the water was bad. Her children repeatedly suffered from stomach pains and eye diseases, she added.

But that was before a life-changing meeting between the Van Kieu community and local officials. Lien and her neighbors were told that more than 15 km of pipes were being laid down to supply water to 712 houses in Dakrong. Villagers were also trained about what to do and who to contact if any of the new amenities malfunctioned.

"I do not have to spend as much on medical bills as before," says Lien. "I also have more time for myself. Now I can come home any time and start cooking or washing clothes, and do not need to worry if there is any water left in the bucket."

Water on demand

People of the Van Kieu ethnic minority now have clean water piped to their homes as part of the $151.1 million Rural Infrastructure Sector Project in Viet Nam, which ran from 1998 to 2005. ADB provided $96.7 million in financing for the project. The Van Kieu people of Dakrong received an ADB grant of more than $43,000. The project was launched in March 2003 and was completed and handed over to the local community less than 2 years later.

For ADB, the project sponsor, the lack of access to clean water is more than simply a health issue, says Tomoyuki Kimura, ADB country director. "Limited access [to clean water] also makes the gender equality gap wider among some ethnic minority groups in Viet Nam," he says.

Because of the time spent carrying water, women are not able to participate in income-generating activities, and girls' educations are often curtailed. Now the Van Kieu women of Dakrong can simply turn on the taps installed in their homes.

Vo Hung Cuong works at the Dakrong Water Supply Factory, which administers and operates the water supply system. "At the moment, the system can supply 1,500 cubic meters per 24 hours," he says, "but it is designed for up to 3,000 cubic meters to meet rising demand."

The system pumps water from the Dakrong River, treats it, and stores it in two containers, before supplying it through pipes to each household.

Household taps are not the norm for such projects in rural Viet Nam, explains Nguyen Van Bai, director of Quang Tri's Department for Agriculture and Rural Development. Often projects deliver a community tap in the center of the village, but the people of Dakrong requested individual taps for each household.

Villagers and project managers reached a speedy agreement on this point, largely because shared taps have proved to be inefficient and do not last long.

According to Bai, the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development adapted to the small ethnic community's requests in other ways as well.

For example, when it came to how to get water to each house, each family needed to buy pipes of differing lengths, resulting in different installment costs for each household. The villagers wanted the costs to be shared equally.

"We recalculated all the expenses and divided them equally," says Bai. "It is essential to remember that Van Kieu people are different from other ethnic groups in many ways, and we have to respect their expectations [... ]. This is the most important lesson we've learned from the project."

Canals to the fields

"Though Viet Nam has had enormous economic growth, there are still many households of low income, and poverty still prevails in many rural areas. One of the main reasons is the fragmentation of farming land and limited access to water supply for their farms."

- Tomoyuki Kimura, ADB Viet Nam country director

While the Van Kieu people of Dakrong are finally able to access clean water, until recently their neighbors in Gio Linh and Cam Lo districts and Dong Ha city also faced a serious problem: no water for irrigation. For a province where the majority of the population relies on agriculture, this meant hunger and poverty.

To address the issue, ADB's Rural Infrastructure Sector Project allocated over $800,000 to improve Quang Tri's irrigation system.

"Though Viet Nam has had enormous economic growth, there are still many households of low income and poverty still prevails in many rural areas," says ADB's Kimura. "One of the main reasons is the fragmentation of farming land and limited access to water supply for their farms. This grant joins efforts by ADB and the Government of Viet Nam to better use our resources for agricultural production."

With the help of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, more than 11 km of canals now bring water from Truc Kinh Lake down to almost 1,000 hectares (ha) of rice fields.

The canals have shortened the travel distance of irrigation water to fields, reduced water wastage by renovating canals' sandy banks with concrete and rocks, and minimized the risk of land desertification. Instead of growing just one crop, famers can now grow two per year.Other significant outcomes of the improved irrigation include a 25% increase in cultivated areas, a shift to higher value crops, a 27% increase in rice yields, and up to 37% increase in yields of other crops such as maize, sugarcane, and vegetables.

"Before, it was all for God to decide," says Nguyen Thi Nong, 48. "We used to depend on rain only. Now we can decide when to grow our rice."

Nong's family has 1.25 ha of rice fields. She and her family used to work from dawn to dust to get rainwater to their thirsty field. It took them almost a month to plow land and sow rice because the soil was so hard.

The new irrigation system has changed all that, and farming families can finish the same amount of work in less than a week.

"We started to invest a little more money on machines and rice seeds now that we feel assured of water supply," says Nong. "My husband no longer has to leave home to work in the city. He and I can work together in our field."