Poor sanitation and hygiene are pervading problems in rural areas of Laos, particularly in the rural uplands and mountains where poverty is widespread and people continue to live traditional lifestyles. Official statistics indicate that at least 20% of the population practices open defecation, which is a major cause of water-borne diseases and parasite infestation afflicting not least children. This is in turn a major contributor to the high rates of malnutrition and stunting. Putting a halt to open defecation has for long been a government priority, but progress has been relatively slow. It was therefore a major milestone in the national development when Bolikhamxay province on 31 July 2020 was declared the first ‘Open Defecation-Free’ (ODF) province in Laos.
Children enjoy community water stand tap in their village. © LuxDev
Luxembourg Cooperation project has been a major contributor to achieving this milestone by investing in water, sanitation and hygiene in about 110 of the roughly 300 villages in Bolikhamxay Province, starting already in year 2000. In these target communities, the problem is not so much a lack of understanding of the benefits of toilets, but rather the lack of convenient and sufficient water supplies, the inability of poor families to invest in latrines (amidst many other household priorities), and the lack of community resolve and norms to wipe out open defecation. Therefore, the Bolikhamxay Livelihood Improvement and Governance Project, LAO/021 and later the Local Development Programme for Bokeo, Bolikhamxay, Khammouane and Vientiane Province, LAO/30, both funded by the Luxembourg Cooperation and implemented by LuxDev, have been prioritising support to the local health authorities since 2011 in establishing new improved water supply systems. . Moreover, the communities received village development funds to upgrade existing water supplies, establish water management committees, and subsidize materials for constructing household latrines. By having the villages taking a communal decision on investing their village development funds in water and sanitation, it was possible to achieve ownership and to change the norms towards open defecation and other hygiene practices.
School toilet newly built with community participation. © LuxDev
By focusing on the more remote villages where improved water supply and latrines were generally absent or lacking, LAO/021 and LAO/030 have had the direct impact and strategic coverage necessary for ensuring that the province could achieve the open defecation-free status. The concrete investment in water and sanitation in 85 villages that practiced almost exclusive open defecation has since 2011 amounted to 1,000,000 EUR, 80% of which was for water supply schemes (as the necessary precursor for the actual use of the latrines, along with other benefits), and 20% for subsidising latrine construction by the individual households. Roughly 50,000 people benefitted directly from these investments, at an average cost or 20 EUR per capita. In addition to this work, 52 community schools, high schools and dormitories have been constructed with access to water and toilets according to national norms for education facilities.
Community Dialouge before providing water supply system and toilet to target village. © LuxDev
It should be noted that other development partners have contributed to Bolikhamxay achieving the ODF milestone, particularly UNICEF who focussed on awareness raising and political resolve, e.g. through the support to district-level ODF plans implemented by the Provincial and District Multi-Stakeholders Committee formed with officials from various government agencies. It is quite possible that this helped pave the way for the more practical solutions offered by Luxembourg.
The Lao Government hopes that all seventeen provinces and one capital area in Laos will achieve open defecation-free status by 2025. Luxembourg Cooperation project currently supports this effort in three other target provinces of LAO/030, which can realistically be achieved with the current and planned continuation of Luxembourg support in 2022-26.↑ To the top