What lessons communities along the Mekong River can give on access to safe water

The Mekong River as it runs through Vietnam

Out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the United Nations has laid out for member nations, no goal has as much impact on the globe as water. Water management not only dictates how sustainable ecosystems, livelihoods, and industry will be, it has a critical impact on peace and human health.

However, as of the present time, water scarcity afflicts more than 40 per cent of the population around the world, 1.8 billion depend on drinking water sources that have been contaminated by faeces, and an estimated 2.8 billion people do not have access to proper toilets and sanitation. On top of that, more than 80 per cent of wastewater generated from human activities – much like industry and agriculture – is discharged back into water bodies with any treatment whatsoever.

But realising SDG 6, “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”, includes the extensive scale of freshwater systems at the core of this challenge, and needs an approach that allows communities and households to better understand and manage the resource.

Much progress has already been achieved, with figures from the end of 2015 showing that approximately 6.6 billion people – around 90 per cent of the global population – now have access to improved drinking water sources, and about 4.9 billion – an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population – have access to improved sanitation. However, when Our World magazine from the United Nations University travelled to the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, what they saw suggested that much of the figures related to water quality did not tell the full story.

But the full extent of failing to achieve the third target of SDG 6 – “by 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally” – can be catastrophic. Because water is so integral to life, falling short of the target could translate into the protection of life below water and human health and well-being being unlikely.

Along the Mekong River, water quality research has been focused on large water bodies such as the main river channel. However, due to the large volume of water passing through the main channels, contaminants and pollutants frequently tend to be diluted. But Our World magazine found, after working closely with local communities, that while these larger river sources are mostly utilised for agriculture, irrigation, and transportation, they usually turn to smaller canals and tributaries near their homes – where contaminants and pollutants can be found in higher concentrations – for daily use.

According to Our World, to gain a better understanding of the impact water quality has on households, a greater interest in smaller canals and waterways needs to be taken. Research studies by the United Nations University have noted that while the quality of water in the Mekong River has improved since 2007, it is still low – and the local community uses it for cleaning, cooking, and drinking.

Much like most rural places, water supplies that have been centrally treated are not common along the Mekong River Delta, leading households to use water that is insufficiently treated, and thus contaminated and polluted. While most boil their water before consumption or use basic treatment methods such as removing sediments with aluminium sulphate, these methods only filter out the sediment without making the water “cleaner”. Boiling, on the other hand, while capable of eliminating most pathogens – an important step – may actually bring up the concentration of several heat-stable chemical contaminants.

But these factors must first be understood in order to develop education and outreach programmes that can be used to accurately inform local communities of water risks. According to Our World, only when the water risks are properly understood can extant water regulations and policies be improved and enforced.

 

Source: Our World magazine, by the United Nations University