News / Asia

Q&A: Improving Water Conditions in Vietnam, Cambodia

FILE - The sun rises above a polluted lake at the Nam Son garbage dump, north of Hanoi, Vietnam.
FILE - The sun rises above a polluted lake at the Nam Son garbage dump, north of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Steve Norman
The United Nations reports 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have access to adequate sanitation, and more than 760 million are without clean water.  One of the organizations dedicated to providing clean water and better sanitation is the U.S.-based development agency, East Meets West, which is working to improve these conditions, specifically in Vietnam. VOA's Steve Norman spoke with the group's president, John Anner, about their work and how it got started. 

Anner:  East Meets West was born from one woman's dream of helping to heal the wounds of war between the United States and Vietnam.  In 1988, LeLy Hayslip, returned to her home village of Ky La in central Vietnam and started East Meets West.  A lot of what we did was bringing Vietnam veterans back to Vietnam so they could get involved in works which were much more constructive and humanitarian in the aftermath of the war.  Over the years we have expanded our work to other countries in the region.

Norman:  What are your current projects in Vietnam?

Anner:  We have four main project areas, including clean water, education, child health, and construction of what the group calls “Vietnam Social Infrastructure."  This would be hospitals, libraries and schools.

Norman:  I understand that you are partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on a number of your projects.

Anner:  Yes. The Gates Foundation helps us to provide people in impoverished, rural areas access to safe water and improved sanitation in order to greatly reduce water-borne diseases.  This dual approach to improving community health leads to better health and improved economic and education opportunities.  The estimates from the countries themselves are that 50 percent of the Vietnamese people and 80 percent of Cambodians simply lack any sort of proper sanitation at home.

Norman:  Does the Gates Foundation funding allow you freedoms East Meets West might not otherwise have?

Anner:  The Gates money fills a particular niche of how to deliver large numbers of latrines in a reasonable way that is cost effective.  The average latrine can cost between $100 and $150; you can do the math, if millions of people need latrines, then you’re talking about a very expensive need which needs to be met.

Norman:  I would assume all of this leads to saved lives.

Anner: It does. Helping countries, such as Vietnam, achieve better sanitation and clean water does save lives.  Each year more than 17,000 people, most of whom are children under the age of five, die in Vietnam and Cambodia as a result of poor hygiene.

Norman:  Does your work translate into any economic gains for countries like Vietnam and Cambodia?

Anner:  Quite simply, the economic loss from health issues and the mortality that results is approximately $1.2 billion a year in these two countries.  We see sanitation not just as a health issue, but also something that keeps poor families trapped in a cycle of poverty and makes it very hard to climb out [of poverty] when you’re constantly suffering the effects of water-borne diseases.

The East Meets West chief, John Anner, also noted the expense of prevention is relatively small compared with the human and financial costs resulting from poor sanitation and unclean water.

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