Piped Water for Good Health in the Lao PDR

An ADB-supported project in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is bringing clean water and modern toilets to rural communities.

Life has always been hard for women in the small, poor villages of northern Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). The daily ritual of fetching clean water was a particularly grueling task.

“I would get up in the morning before the children were awake and walk to the river and carry back the water,” recalls Lee Chanmanee, a mother of five from Muang Houn District. “I’d go back to the river again and again until I had enough water for the day.”

“The path to get there was quite difficult,” she says. “I’d carry 20 liters at a time. It was very heavy.”

Today, clean, safe water is piped into her home, and the daily walk is no longer necessary.

“Our lives have improved a lot,” she says. “Our family is healthier now and we seldom get sick.”

Lee is one of thousands of people in the Lao PDR who have benefited from the Northern and Central Regions Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project. It was supported by ADB, with cofinancing from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Fund for International Development, and the United Nations Human Settlements Program.

The people in these remote, impoverished areas have for decades struggled to access clean, safe water. Most have never had the benefit of modern toilets. In 2005, when the project was being prepared, only 17% of households in small towns in the Lao PDR had piped water and fewer than 50% had modern toilets in their homes.

Impact on women and girls

Lack of safe water and sanitation facilities had a significant impact on the people’s health and their ability to work and live with dignity. Women and girls were particularly hard hit, as they bore the burden of hauling water and the drudgery of dealing with problems affecting the health of their families. Instead of going to school or having a chance to work or socialize, they spent much of their time carrying water.

"Clean, piped water most dramatically affects the lives of girls in small, poor communities."

- Anupma Jain, senior social sector specialist at ADB

The solution: pipe clean water, construct modern drainage systems, and install toilets in people’s homes to improve family health and promote cleanliness in the villages. The goal of the project was to improve the quality of life in these small towns, as well as to help them become market centers for goods and services, especially from the rural areas.

“Clean, piped water most dramatically affects the lives of girls in small, poor communities,” says Anupma Jain, senior social sector specialist at ADB. “It allows girls to attend school longer,” she says. “Basically, without water supply, girls are assisting their mothers or other family members to collect water. This takes them away from staying in school or even attending school.”

Although people desperately needed and wanted piped clean water in their homes, many were less enthusiastic about having modern toilets installed. Poor families struggling to pay for even the most basic expenses had little money left to put in toilets.

But bringing in clean water would have been much less effective if the project had not also addressed the issues of storm drains and modern toilets. People would still be getting sick. How can you help people install modern toilets in their homes when they can barely afford to pay their bills?

Socialized program

To solve this problem, the project offered free water connection for a limited time to those households that installed modern toilets. The water supply company then recovered the cost of these initial connections by spreading the payments over time. Poor households were also given grants to help them pay for the new toilets.

The project provided 24-hour supply of clean water to 18,173 households (96,036 people) in 12 towns across the northern and central regions of the country. Some 17,565 households built modern toilets in their homes. Of these, 751 poor households received grants to help pay for the installation of toilets. The project also provided access to water supply to about 3,000 households of ethnic groups and those headed by women - groups that are vulnerable and sometimes neglected.

This article is an excerpt from a longer piece originally published in Together We Deliver, a publication highlighting successful ADB projects across Asia and the Pacific that demonstrated development impacts, best practice, and innovation.