Viet Nam: Closer to bringing drinking water and sanitation to all

July 2015

A robust 15-year commitment helps Viet Nam exceed the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target for water and sanitation.

Children attend a clean water educational event, Viet Nam.
Viet Nam Ministry of Health

Twenty-five years ago, roughly 2 out of 5 people in Viet Nam did not have access to improved sources of drinking water. Improved sources – mostly tap water and protected wells – were easy to find in cities, but 80% of the population lived in rural areas where tap water was non-existent and protected wells and springs were scarce.

Finding a toilet or latrine was even more difficult. Three out of 5 people did not have access to improved sanitation facilities that keep human excreta away from human contact. And, 2 out of 5 people defecated in the country’s forests, fields and rivers.

“During that time water and sanitation was poor. Child mortality rates were high and outbreaks of cholera, diarrhoea and typhoid were common,” says Dr Nguyen Huy Nga, Senior Advisor, Viet Nam Ministry of Health. “With the MDGs, the government strengthened its political commitment and began considering access to water and sanitation as an indicator of socio-economic development.”

The commitment has paid off. Viet Nam has not only met the MDG targets to reach 82% and 68% of the population with improved water and sanitation, it has surpassed them. Today, 98% of Viet Nam’s more than 90 million residents have access to improved drinking water sources and 78% of the population uses toilets and latrines that meet international standards.

Setting national standards

Meeting the MDG targets was not an easy task. In 2000, with support from WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank and other international organizations, the Government of Viet Nam developed the National Rural Clean Water Supply and Sanitation Strategy to 2020. The strategy set the foundation for all government agencies to work towards universal access to water and sanitation – a higher target than the MDGs.

Under the strategy, a three-phase National Target Programme was implemented to measure the country’s progress, and standards for drinking water quantity and quality and sanitation facilities were established.

Improving water quality

In 2008, Viet Nam issued regulations to all urban water companies to implement water safety plans – a recommendation under the WHO guidelines. Four years later, it became mandatory for all of Viet Nam’s 68 water suppliers to implement water safety plans that eliminate contamination of source water, treat it and prevent recontamination during storage and distribution.

"Many people in Viet Nam have a motorbike or a mobile phone, but they do not have a toilet. We need to work to change attitudes and beliefs on sanitation.”

Dr Nguyen Huy Nga, Senior Advisor, Viet Nam Ministry of Health

“Viet Nam’s efforts over the years have been strong. Before water safety plans were applied, water quality testing was only done at the point of users and there was no way of controlling risks that could occur in the water supply system,” says Tuan Nghia Ton, National Professional Officer, WHO Viet Nam. “Today, the country is following the WHO Guidelines for drinking-water quality and implementing water safety plans.”

WHO, with the Government of Viet Nam, has supported the training all of the urban water suppliers to implement water safety plans and UNICEF has worked with government counterparts to implement the plans in rural areas.

Because piped water still only reaches 10% of rural households and 61% of urban households, UNICEF has also been working with the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development to promote household water treatment and storage in communities where people don’t have access to protected water sources.

Building hygienic toilets and latrines

Use of improved sanitation facilities in Viet Nam has more than doubled – from 36% in 1990 to 78% in 2015. And open defecation, where people do not use any form of latrine or toilet, has been reduced from 39% to 1% over the same time period.

A mother and child in front of a latrine, Viet Nam.
UNICEF Viet Nam

However, the Ministry of Health remains highly concerned about the estimated 1 in 10 people in rural areas who continue to use primitive hanging latrines which release excreta directly into ponds and rivers, thus contaminating the environment and water resources.

UNICEF has worked to build capacity in the country’s national and provincial governments to implement a community-led sanitation approach that motivates communities to improve their sanitation practices and keep their environment clean. Communities decide on the type of sanitation facilities they want, are taught how to construct them and can obtain small construction loans from the government.

“In 2014, the country made a strong commitment in the global Sanitation and Water for All partnership to eliminate open defecation by 2025. Today, Viet Nam has declared 250 villages open defecation free and many more villages are working on it,” says Lalit Patra, Team Leader of the Water Sanitation and Hygiene programme at UNICEF Viet Nam.

Beyond the MDGs

While Viet Nam has reached the MDG targets, the country has its sights set on universal access. By 2025 the country plans to eliminate open defecation, and by 2030 all Vietnamese should have access to safe drinking water. Public awareness campaigns, additional investments in rural areas and sustainability measures will be the key to success, says Dr Nguyen.

“The problem we still face is not everyone knows how to use a latrine,” he says. “Many people in Viet Nam have a motorbike or a mobile phone, but they do not have a toilet. We need to work to change attitudes and beliefs on sanitation.”