[Road Once Traveled] Japanese City Extends a Helping Hand through Water

A city official from Saitama puts Japan’s past experience to work in Laos

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Turn on a faucet in Japan at any hour of the day or night, and you will get water that can be drunk straight from the tap. This is the rule rather than the exception, but it is not the norm in many other parts of the world. 

“Seeing how pleased people were with running water reminded me once again of how important water supply is,” recalls Keisuke Sonoda, an employee at the Saitama City Waterworks Bureau.

Sonoda has supported waterworks projects in Laos as the Chief Advisor for the Project for Improvement of Management Capacity of Water Supply Sector for about three years since 2018, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saitama City has supported Laos on waterworks projects dating back 30 years to 1992. Ever since the city was approached to take part in a national government research project designed to support the waterworks sector in Laos, Saitama has been dispatching its experts. 

The water supply coverage rate, or the percentage of the population with access to piped water, is just 26% in Laos. Water wields significant impacts on infant and child mortality rates, which are approximately 30 times higher in Laos than they are in Japan.

Sonoda’s work focuses on maintenance of water supply services and reinforcement of related management systems. 

“In Japan,” Sonoda adds, “it is front-page news when tap water looks muddy or cloudy, but this is far from uncommon in Laos.”

Chemicals are commonly used to remove impurities and reduce turbidity in the water supply. In Japan, this process is automated, but in Laos it is often performed manually.

Sonoda takes Japan’s expertise and offers guidance on establishing technical standards for water distribution and supply and on improving management capacity.

On the Ground in Laos

An unforgettable experience for Sonoda was a visit to Phongsaly.

The province is located on Laos’ border with China and a day and a half away from the nation’s capital of Vientiane by plane and car. Visits by experts are a rarity as the location of this small, remote, mountainous province makes it difficult for aid to reach the area.

Sonoda was astonished by the welcome he received.

Traditional houses dot the landscape along the steep sloping cobblestone streets of the villages in this province.

A potential tourism resource, Sonoda advised the villagers to install water pipes on privately-owned land on the sides of the road, rather than laying them under the cobblestones to avoid destroying the historic streets by digging under them. 

Local engineers in Phongsaly Province eager and ready for instruction with Sonoda (far right) (photo courtesy of Keisuke Sonoda)

Once underground, water pipes are hidden from view, making it important to photograph each step of the installment process to ensure proper maintenance and management going forward. While this is routine in Japan, it is not done in most cases in Laos due to the time and effort required, according to Sonoda.

He explains, “There are many spots in Phongsaly that make management and operation difficult, so it is essential to photograph the installation process. Conveying this importance to them was an achievement.”

Although consultations and guidance can be conducted remotely, Sonoda notes that visiting Phongsaly in person made him realize the importance of face-to-face interactions on the ground.

Being on the ground in Laos brings clear benefits, and yet there are also costs. When Sonoda was posted to Laos, he left his three children, aged six, four, and one, at home in Japan.

Although he sometimes struggled with feelings of loneliness from being away from his family and unfamiliar parts of life in Laos, including frequent power outages, he fell in love with the country that he came to know through waterworks projects.

Japan’s 'Road Once Traveled'

While Japan is fortunate to have rich water resources and is advanced in terms of water supply, history reveals that the country has not always been a straight-A student.

Trade with Europe and the United States in the later half of the nineteenth century prompted the spread of cholera, typhoid, dysentery and other gastrointestinal diseases, mainly in the designated trading port areas of Yokohama and Kobe.

To deal with these diseases, Yokohama imported materials from England with the guidance of British engineers, jumpstarting the emergence of modern water supply systems in Japan. These included high-pressure water supply, water filtration and purification, and constant water supply.

Clean, hygienic water is directly linked to life. Infant deaths in Japan plunged with the advent of these water supply systems.

However, a marked decline in the number of cases of waterborne gastrointestinal infectious diseases was not seen until after World War II. This dramatic decline was largely due to the thorough enforcement of chlorine disinfection under the occupation policies of the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces (GHQ).

The water supply coverage rate that was just over 53% in Japan in the 1960s surpassed 90% in the 1980s as a national effort was made to extend water supply not only to urban locales, but also to rural and other less populated areas.

Today, at 98%, that rate is almost 100%.

Developing countries facing these very same problems today—scarce water sources, lack of facilities, inadequate funds, and insufficient human resources—find themselves on the same path that Japan, today an advanced country in terms of water supply, once traveled.

Putting a human face on aid

Classes for children on water supply (photo courtesy of Keisuke Sonoda)

Approximately two billion people around the world do not have access to safely managed drinking water. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim for the realization of societies where all have access to safe water by 2030.

The construction of water treatment plants, water supply pipelines and other infrastructure is often funded by Official Development Assistance (ODA) from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), or via projects of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB).

While Japan funds these institutions, it is also engaged in providing support on the softer side through technical cooperation at the grassroots level, such as developing human resources and administrative capacity.

More often than not, when aid is provided by former colonial powers such as those in Europe, there is no follow-up once a project has been completed. The infrastructure constructed then hits setbacks in operation and maintenance.

Japan is also involved in the development and construction of infrastructure, but staff from various municipal waterworks utilities are on site to provide guidance to ensure that operations are continuous and sustainable.

Signs displaying the Japanese flag to indicate that such infrastructure has been built with support from Japan are important, but support through people-oriented communication embodies the true meaning of “putting a human face on aid”.

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