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  Enviroment Research & Protection

Ha Tien people change hygiene habits, customs

Like many population centres in the MeKong Delta, the people of Ha Tien Town tend to build their houses lacking something – a toilet.

The local proverb: ‘Go to the field nearby, go to the mountain nearby,’ reflects the customs and attitudes of the people toward hygiene, an approach that poses a threat to public sanitation as the area’s urban population continues to grow.

With support from Australia-funded Three Towns Water Supply and Sanitation Project, the situation is improving. The programme includes a revolving loan for sanitation, which was originally implemented by the Town Women’s Union (TWU). Loc Chum, a middle-aged Khmer man, and his elderly son built a septic tank system in their family garden.

The project cost VND1.5 million (US$95). Chum’s wife borrowed the money from the Sanitation Credit Scheme (SCS), which is managed by TWU. Chum said, "I want to build a septic tank system because we have never had a toilet. Our children, therefore, always go in the open air. It’s not hygienic, especially in the dry season."

Chum’s family is one of nearly 500 who have borrowed money from SCS. Ta Tuyet Phuong, an accountant for TWU’s credit management board, said TWU’s survey on hygiene in the town, before SCS began operating in March 2003, showed that of 7,800 households surveyed, 3,400 did not have latrines, or had latrines, but no septic tanks. Roughly 2,800 of the households said they wanted to build proper latrines. The remaining families said they wanted to, but that they needed financial assistance.

"Increasingly, people are aware that lacking a latrine is not only unhygienic, but uncomfortable in everyday life," Phuong said. "The custom is not the issue. The survey shows many people are willing to change but they are too poor."

To build a basic septic tank toilet, a household needs between VND 1.5 and 1.8 million (between $95-120). This is a large sum for many of the local families. SCS, therefore, provides a maximum loan of VND1.5 million for households that need septic tank toilets. Families have up to 15 months to repay the loan.

TWU bases loan recipient selection on local ward government reports, where families send requests. (They may send requests through community residence groups as well.) Households are required to follow minimum technical standards, which the project designates, and latrine construction must be completed no more than 10 days after the loan is given. "Since the programme started, 473 septic tanks have been built in Ha Tien Town.

Repayments include the loan principal and interest, which is collected and rolled over directly into another loan," Phuong said.

Reasons exist for latrine building other than hygiene. For example, Huynh Thi Thu Thao, from Binh San Ward, said, "I am old and have high blood pressure. It may be dangerous for me to go out at night."

Huynh Thi Thu Hang said, "The new urban area is expanding. We understand that we can’t go in the big open space’ any more." No matter what the reason, so many latrines built in such a short period is surely influencing local concepts of hygiene. "Having a latrine inside the house, I feel very comfortable and hygienic, but there is no water system installed yet and we have to buy water for washing and other hygienic needs," Hang, a woman from Binh San Ward, said.

"To encourage poor households to build toilets," Phuong said, "TWU intends to reduce interest rates from 1 per cent to 0.5 per cent. In addition, the Union requested that the project lay a pipeline network and install water meters free of charge."

Last year, the project helped set up two portable toilet blocks.

One is located in the town’s central park, where people often gather. "We think public toilets provide a strong influence on local customs. We will build five permanent toilet blocks by the end of the year," said Le Van, the project’s representative in Ha Tien Town.

"Ha Tien town has a population of 26,000. Building sanitation facilities is just a piece of the larger plan to supply water to the town. Hygiene habits will improve markedly once the town has a sufficient water supply.

Presently, the project is gathering material for a new water treatment plant. A distribution system will begin construction in November of this year," said Van.

VNS - (20/08/2004)

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