The asphalt runs out and the tires instead find their grip in the mountains’ iron-red dust after about an hour’s drive south from Buon Ma Thuot, the biggest city in the Dak Lak province. The dirt road soon leads into the countryside commune of Nam Ndir. Although elevated to a breathtaking view of the countless rice fields down in the neighboring valley, the scattered plantations on Nam Ndir’s soft hill-sides reveal that coffee production is the main employer in the commune’s seven villages. But as in many other Vietnamese rural areas that are not getting a taste of the same economic boom as the big cities, poverty is lingering among Nam Ndir’s 6,000 inhabitants. Approximately half of the commune’s more than 1100 households have been classified as poor, which means that they make less than five US dollars a month.
Only five years ago, the only water supply to these villages was the unhygienic wells, which the families dug themselves. Toilets or latrines were a rarity, so instead the inhabitants would dig a hole in the nearest field. The same conditions applied for Nam Ndir’s only school, where hundreds of children daily receive a few hours teaching.
In 2001, Danida decided to support the establishing of latrines for both the school and private households, as well as water pipeline supplying most of the commune. Since then, water has been pumped up from a 56 meters deep drill hole and into a nine meter tall water tower, which is located in the highest elevated village. From here, the water is canalized down by gravity to the villages located further down the hill. Every household, which has chosen to get hooked up to the pipeline, pays about 0,10 USD per cubic meter used water.
“By having people pay a smaller amount for the water, we ensure that the water won’t be wasted. A local group of citizens has been handed over the administration and maintenance of the water supply system. That has meant that the locals’ interest and co-responsibility for the project is very high,” says Counselor Torben Nilsson, who is responsible for Danida’s water sector programme in Vietnam.
But it is not all households, which have been able to afford the 100 USD required to get connected to the pipeline. Thus, Danida has to support such poor households, who then only have to pay 5% before the first shovel hits the ground and 15% when connected. The last 80% is paid by Danida. The so-called non-poor households also pay 5% upfront and 15% when the connection is set up. They then loan 40% through a women’s union, which Danida supports. Danida pays the last 40%.
Latrines for the People
Nam Ndir is far from the only place in the Dak Lak province, which Danida has attempted to reach. A total of approximately 30,000 people have gained access to pure drinking water and more than 35,000 school children now have access to toilets and hand washing facilities. 20,000 people no longer have to use a hole in the ground, but instead have access to latrines.
In Dak Lak’s largest city, Buon Ma Thuot, Denmark has spent 21,4 million USD since 2001 on a sewer system in the central part of town and on treatment of the collected waste water. As late as late week, Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation Ulla Tornaes inaugurated the brand new Danish-funded waste water treatment plant in Buon Ma Thuot, which is the first of its kind in Vietnam. The new plant paves the way for a systematic sewer network in the city.
With support from Denmark, 120 new latrines are currently being built each week in the outer parts of town, and by the end of 2005 the Danish aid money will have financed 10,000 latrines in the provincial capitol.
In the Shadow of the Larger Cities
With similar water and sanitation projects Denmark is attempting to improve the standards of living in two other larger provincial cities, Dalat and Halong. But Vietnam’s rapid economic development, which especially benefits the larger cities, might soon make it natural to adjust this part of the Danish development effort. This is confirmed by the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation Ulla Toernaes after her visit to Vietnam.
“The conditions in Vietnam have changed significantly since we began our work to improve the water and sanitation standards back in December 2000. Although there are still big needs in certain slum areas, the living standard has been improved considerably in the cities, where most people can afford to pay for the water supply themselves. Therefore, the next phase of our water sector programme will be directed more towards to rural areas, where the need for us to go in and pay the bill is bigger,” says Ulla Tornaes.
“But first and foremost, I am happy to see that Danish aid work works in Vietnam. Our effort within the water sector is one of many examples of how Denmark really is making a big difference,” she says.
At the moment, Vietnam is the country receiving the second-largest amount of aid money from Denmark in the entire world – only topped by Tanzania. Danida is expecting to spend a total of 59,3 million USD in Vietnam in 2005.