Champassak province, Lao People’s Democratic Republic – Traveling the last stretch of road to Pha Kha village feels like looking out the window of an airplane that’s just broken through storm clouds and been greeted by a rich, blue sky.
Miles of dusty, potholed roads suddenly give way to vast fields of fluorescent-green rice paddies. The scene sweeps calmly to the horizon in every direction, broken only by streams and scattered, flattened rocks positioned like small islands.
Noy, 19, has spent most of her life in Pha Kha village, together with her mother and older sister. She says she likes the clean air and relaxed pace and she wants to raise her 9-month-old son here with her husband.
But having recently spent two years, caring for her younger cousins in the country’s capital city, Vientiane, Noy explains a few things she had to change once she returned home.
“I never realized how convenient having a bathroom would be,” she explains. “When I came back (from Vientiane), there was no way I was going to continue going into the fields. It was so uncomfortable.”
Noy uses the words ‘uht aht’ to describe how she felt at losing the convenience and dignity she previously had in Vientiane, forced to find a tree or bush to crouch behind. Roughly translated, the words connote the feeling of having an awkward itch that you can’t scratch.
“I told my mother ‘we’re building a bathroom’,” she says, recounting how her decision “was final”. A few weeks later, her husband and brother-in-law had finished building a brick bathroom just next to her home.
“Noy told us we had to have one,” her mother recalls. “At first, I didn’t really think it was necessary… I thought we should spend the money on something else. But now I can’t imagine not having it… And I wouldn’t want my daughters having to go without one.”
It wasn’t long before Noy’s neighbors also started building bathrooms. A construction salesman who lives just up the hill from her started designing a series of connected latrines and washrooms for his family that now rivals the size of smaller homes in the village.
While sending all the young women in such a village off to spend time in bigger, developed cities is not likely the answer to inspiring better sanitation in rural areas, Noy – whose name literally translates as ‘small’ – is a good example of how one person can start to catalyze a community.
“It’s happening now… it’s slow, but it’s happening,” explains Mr Bounpone, the head of the cluster of communities of which Pha Kha village is a part.
But arguably the movement to build latrines in Pha Kha is not so slow. It was just two years ago that the community had less than five latrines for more than 150 households. Today, the community has 78. Village authorities estimate that if solutions can be found to some of the village’s water problems, nearly every home will likely have a latrine in two more years.
“We want the status of having a clean and healthy village,” Mr Bounpone says. “The people here see others building latrines and they want them too. For some, it’s still a matter of money. For others, we first need to work on the locations for them to build.”
This is precisely the type of progress and development that the Lao Government’s Ministry of Health (MoH) wants to see in rural areas.
“We know that with the right inspiration, people will take ownership for their family and their community’s health,” says Dr Bouakeo Souvanthong, Chief of the Environmental Health Division in the National Centre for Environmental Health and Water Supply under MoH. “But it will take people seeing and realizing the benefits of a few, before it spreads to many.”
As for Noy, she says there are other conveniences she misses from living in a larger city. “Ease of shopping… some of the food… and nobody wanting to use my bathroom,” she laughs. “If (my neighbors) keep using this one, it’s going to overflow!”
The National Centre for Environmental Health and Water Supply together with the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program and other development organizations have partnered with Another Option, LLC to create a series of communication products that will help to inspire the use of improved sanitation facilities in rural areas.
Shane Powell is a communication specialist who has worked on behavior development issues for more than 10 years in Southeast Asia. His areas of work focus on health, nutrition, education and natural resource protection. Shane currently resides with his wife and two cats in Vientiane, Lao PDR where they maintain vast collections of tea and soap from around the world.