Community Water Solutions in Action in Laos

XIENG NGEUN, Laos -- With just 13.4 percent of the country’s 6.3 million people having access to piped water at present, Lao authorities would have to work more than double time if the rest of the population are to have clean and safe water within a decade.

Here in Xieng Ngeun however, no one is waiting for the government alone to provide the townspeople with their water needs.

Located 25 kilometres south of the World Heritage City of Luang Prabang and part of the province of the same name, Xieng Ngeun boasts of having Laos’s first water-supply and sanitation project in which the community has taken part in all its stages, from planning to implementation.

With an initial grant of 250,000 U.S. dollars from United Nations-Habitat, plus contributions from the local community and the state-owned Luang Prabang Water Supply Enterprise, the project now serves more than 60 percent of the district’s 11,000 people and covers nine out of its 16 villages.

That was just the first phase, which started in 2005. Last year, Phase 2 began with a fresh infusion of 159,951 dollars from U.N.-Habitat, to cover six more villages. The target date for completion is 2011; the plans are the district and provincial water-supply enterprise will see to it that the 16th and last village will have piped water and sanitation systems as well by 2012.

"It is a grant-supported and low-cost project because the locals’ involvement helps reduce the cost," says Somphone Chanthalideth, head of the Water Supply Enterprise of Xieng Ngeun, referring to the entire venture. "We do not have to pay much for machines to dig the trenches."

Sixty-three-year-old farmer Keum Sirikoun, for instance, was among those who volunteered to help in the digging in her area. "We (my husband and I) really wanted to have water so we joined others to dig the trenches," she says. "It took us less than a week to finish."

She says that they "enjoyed" working with their neighbours and that they have since been "more than happy" with the results.

What makes the project more remarkable is that it practically began from zero.

Residents spent hours fetching water from a great distance for use at home. Recalls Avi Sarkar, South-east Asia chief technical advisor at UN-Habitat’s Water and Sanitation Section: "There was no water and sanitation service in Xieng Ngeun before. Nothing was working and the whole system was abandoned."

Now that more than half of Xieng Ngeun residents enjoy piped water in their households, the district’s incidents of diarrhoea and other diseases brought about by unclean water, as well as by the absence of proper sanitation facilities, have gone down.

Somphone says that the project has greatly contributed to the district’s social and economic development. Indeed, district’s buzzing vibe distinguishes it from most – if not all – of the areas one passes to get here from the capital Vientiane, which is about 363 kilometres away.

Somphone points to the district’s "two drinking water factories, one ice factory, shops, restaurants and guesthouses" that were set up soon after the piped-water system began working.

In addition, he says, the project helped him and his staff improve their skills and knowledge. "At the beginning of the project," he recounts, "I was struggling (even) to write a report. But now I am quite okay with it."

"(In) the end, every project would be run by local people and I think it’s very much important to bring in the local capacity," notes a palpably pleased Sarkar. "We very much focus on the developing skills of the local engineers, and there are a lot of technical knowledge and expertise in Laos."

Up to now, too, locals continue marvel over the amount of involvement they have in the project. In fact, residents have worked together with the district authorities and the state water-supply firm on just about everything regarding the project, including the implementation arrangements, procurement packages, and pricing policies.

"Before we get a budget approval," says Somphone, "we need a number of signatures from the steering committee."

Residents also help take care of the revolving fund that allows the cash-strapped among them to pay the construction and connection fees – about 100 dollars per household – in installments.

Many here believe the local folks’ involvement has also made the project less prone to corruption.

Sarkar himself says, "When the community is participating, they are more knowledgeable about the development project. The whole system becomes more transparent and accountable because everyone knows what’s happening. And the community involvement results in better achievement of the project target."

"Community approach is great," he stresses. "Community participation is a key factor in the success of our project."

Keum would probably agree. Asked if the project should have been done by the government alone, she says, "No."

She continues, "It should be done by all of us because we are the ones who want the water."

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