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Laos: water brings a flood of hope

05-04-2011 Feature

The conflict in Laos ended some 40 years ago. Yet many rural communities are still coping with the aftermath – unexploded cluster bombs, which put people and livelihoods at risk. Joint ICRC and Lao Red Cross projects are bringing water and sanitation to these remote areas.

People in the Lao villages of Phangon and Phousiew were in a festive mood when the team from the Lao Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited their settlements. The young women had dressed in their traditional Hmong costumes. The villagers had come together to celebrate a major change in their simple life – clean drinking water had finally reached them.

Xieng Khouang province, in the north-eastern part of the country, hosts one of the most famous and mysterious archaeological sites in South-East Asia, the Plain of Jars. Yet Xieng Khouang – one of the poorest and most remote rural regions, inhabited mainly by Hmong communities – is also among the provinces most affected by unexploded cluster munitions used decades ago.

The Lao Red Cross and the ICRC are committed to supporting vulnerable communities in areas like this. In February 2011, the humanitarian organizations completed hygiene and water-supply projects in two districts of Xieng Khouang province. More than 750 villagers in Phangon (Nong Het district) and Phousiew (Phu Kut district) now have access to clean water and ventilated pit latrines.

"Life has significantly improved now that sufficient water is regularly available in the village," said Nye Vang Yang, the Lao Red Cross volunteer in Phu Kut district. "Before, villagers had to fetch water at night from the same source where the cattle would drink."

“As a Red Cross volunteer, I can provide basic health-care services to the villagers," he added. "We are now working hard to earn the title of 'clean village of the province.'”

Nye Vang Yang has played an essential role in promoting hygiene practices among the villagers and in providing free basic health-care services. He has been visiting the village every month since the project started.

Dr Saramany, president of the Lao Red Cross, stressed the importance of promoting hygiene. "Access to clean water is the first step towards reducing poverty in this province, which even today is still severely affected by the war."

The Lao Red Cross, through its network of volunteers across the country, can reach the most remote communities. "It is not easy to change hygiene habits and behaviours," Dr Saramany admitted. "One of our assets is that our volunteers can speak the Hmong language and other languages of vulnerable communities in Laos that we want to help."

The Lao Red Cross and the ICRC have been strengthening their cooperation in Laos since 2004. Water and hygiene projects were previously carried out in Luang Prabang and Vientiane provinces.

Laos is the country worst affected by cluster munitions used some 40 years ago. Today these munitions are continuing to kill and injure large numbers of people, to make land unfit for agriculture, and to impede development.
In November 2010, Laos hosted the first meeting of States party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The Cluster Munitions Convention entered into force on 1 August 2010. As of 22 March 2011, 108 States had signed the Convention, and 54 had ratified it. Millions of submunitions have already been destroyed as a result of the Convention.

Photos

The new water point has changed the lives of the villagers. 

The new water point has changed the lives of the villagers.
© ICRC / A. Grimm

Inauguration of the water-supply system. 

Inauguration of the water-supply system. Left of the fountain: Dr Saramany, president of the Lao Red Cross. Right of the fountain: Alfred Grimm, ICRC deputy head of regional delegation
© ICRC / K. Southey

Since clean water was made available in Phousiew, living conditions have improved greatly. 

Since clean water was made available in Phousiew, living conditions have improved greatly.
© ICRC / A. Grimm

A Hmong girl in traditional dress 

A Hmong girl in traditional dress
© ICRC / A. Grimm