The United Nations recognised water and sanitation as a fundamental human right in 2010, adding that making clean water and sanitation available to everyone is a critical way to protect our communities. UNICEF Vietnam says that while 22 million students returned to school in May, at least 6.4 million Vietnamese students went back to schools that did not have running water and other basic sanitation supplies such as hand soap. Toilet facilities in these schools are inadequate and unhygienic.
The provision of safe water, sanitation and hygienic conditions are essential to protecting human health during all infectious disease outbreaks, including the COVID-19 pandemic says the World Health Organization (WHO). Furthermore, good waste management is essential for preventing human-to-human transmission of diseases, such as the Coronavirus. But we don’t need pandemics to highlight the everyday need for clean water and sanitation. Poor sanitation is linked to the transmission of diseases such as parasites, cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A and exacerbates stunting in children.
And sick kids can’t go to school.
Saigonchildren runs two programs addressing Vietnam school children’s water and sanitation needs. The first is the school building program (which includes toilet blocks, sinks and running water) and the second is their water and sanitation program that builds or renovates hygiene facilities. Both projects run in six provinces across southern Vietnam: Tay Ninh, Dong Nai, Tien Giang, Hau Giang, An Giang and Tra Vinh.
Nguyen Thi Duy Huong, Head of Programmes, is also concerned about the unhygienic conditions many Vietnamese students face in their schools.
“Many of the areas where we work have degraded and insufficient water and sanitation facilities,” says Huong. “There’s not even soap for handwashing.” She says one of the most effective disease prevention measures is as simple as washing your hands and yet it continues to be an issue in the remote areas where saigonchildren works.
“Some of these schools were built from 1925 and are deteriorating badly,” she says. “They have not been maintained due to lack of awareness or lack of resources.” Saigonchildren has been running the school building program since 1995 in order to address the lack of access some remote areas have and how that affects children’s education. Often a school is located far from where the children live and makes transportation an added challenge. In some areas, a local house or office is used as a classroom.
“Kids shouldn’t go to school in a building that is falling apart, not safe or not child-friendly,” says Huong. “It’s about welcoming the children to school.” To facilitate this saigonchildren will survey communities and build two- or three-room schools or upgrade deteriorated ones to improve their safety. She says saigonchildren provides training on how to do maintenance, keep the schools clean and how to make small repairs so the schools last longer. School management boards are set up for this training, and to monitor the constructions and renovations.
“We think it is very important that the community supports these school programs,” says Huong, “and to enhance the spirit of ownership.” This approach requires the local authorities to also contribute financially in addition to saigonchildren’s funding. Huong says this ensures the best use of the schools. In collaboration with saigonchildren, the local partners are always willing to save a portion of their budget and to contribute.
“In principle it is their responsibility so saigonchildren only assists in filling the gaps,” says Huong. “It is very important that people aren’t sitting around waiting for money to come from the outside. Contributing and collaboration are the ideas that we share.”
Closing the achievement gaps created during the current Covid-19 pandemic is a focus of saigonchildren’s work. However, Huong stresses that lack of education or poor sanitation due to poverty are both long-term challenges that will remain for a while. “The hardship will still be there after this pandemic is gone,” she says. Saigonchildren and its donors are committed to supporting these families and children in the long-term in order to achieve better and more sustainable outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic, says Huong, demonstrates why water and sanitation must be available, accessible and affordable to all to in order to keep everyone safe and healthy.
“We are a bridge,” she says, “that connects people who want to change with those who want to provide the resources to make that change.”