Is access enough? Discovering solutions for sustainable water filters in Laos


Alexandra Keenan
Associate, Program Impact
April 29, 2019

There are 844 million people who are are currently living without access to safe drinking water. In order to access safe drinking water in Laos, 80 percent of households must boil their water due to the overwhelming presence of harmful chemicals and waste.

Pencils of Promise (PoP) believes that providing access to clean water is the most effective way to ensure students, schools and communities have sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) knowledge and practices. By providing water filters in Laos, PoP is often establishing the only access points for potable drinking water for students and teachers.

Photo credit: Timmy Shivers

But is access enough?

The PoP Laos WASH team has answered: no. In providing water filters, not only does PoP need to establish access for schools, but also needs to ensure materials and facilities are sustainable, safe and reliable.

To ensure this, the Laos team took a closer look at the water filters being provided to schools. Previously the team delivered LifeStraw water filters to schools, along with training sessions and workshops. Over the course of using LifeStraw filters, the team in Laos found them to be effective in schools (i.e., used frequently) and endorsed by school administration. However, there were factors associated with the LifeStraw filters that did not make them sustainable for long term use. When LifeStraw filters needed to be replaced or fixed, the Laos WASH team would have to go through the process of ordering additional materials or filters instead of being able to make repairs, which was not an ideal system. These filters were also imported into Laos, which significantly delayed delivery when a filter was not functioning.

In search of a more sustainable water filter that could not only be managed and maintained in Laos but acquired from a local supply chain, PoP turned to Terra Clear Ceramic water filters. During the piloting period of these filters, the Laos Program Manager, Jua Yangsansai, and his team followed up with schools to see if teachers and students were using the filters. What Jua and his team found is that the water filters were not being used by teachers, and community members reported skepticism of the effectiveness of the water filters efficacy.

When I heard that community members, along with some staff members, were skeptical of the Terra Clear filters, I initially believed there was nothing I could do to assist. Then, I reflected on our WASH program and the impact I’ve seen at PoP schools in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos. I’ve seen how deeply rooted those programs have become, delivering sustainable resources with knowledgeable, effective programming. We needed to take a step back.

Planning & partnering

First, we turned to our Learning & Evaluation (L&E) team for research on other sustainable water filter options and tools WASH technicians could use to test the quality of water. We knew we had to be able to show communities that the local Terra Clear filters did indeed filter water effectively.

Extensive research on the subject led to countless emails, numerous phone calls, and eventually a two week visit to Laos. My travel to Laos not only enabled me to see the WASH program at work, but also to strategize with Jua (Program Manager) and his team. A few weeks before my visit I ordered water tests, as suggested by PoP L&E research, for water testing with the team.

Photo credit: Timmy Shivers

We used the purchased water test to compare the water processed through the Terra Clear filter and a purchased filtered water provided by office against normal tap water (an unclean drinking source in Laos). We anxiously awaited the results, and following two testing sessions, the team was very relieved to see that the Terra Clear results were similar to the purchased filtered water: the filter was effective in purifying dirty water. This was proof to the technicians that the filters worked properly and were the best option for their communities.

I came back to our New York office eager to spread the news that the PoP Laos team was ready to move forward with a sustainable water filter option. Little did I know that we still had one more step in this process. Once the Laos co-country directors submitted our water filter choice to the government for approval (and to provide full transparency of our programming), I waited a few weeks and finally received news of our approval. Now, PoP is moving forward with planning for the 2019-2020 school year with use of the Terra Clear Ceramic filters.

Importance of sustainable practices

Creating access to clean water sources, like water filters, is important because it is a crucial first step in achieving community access to safe drinking water. In order to deliver quality programming, the Laos WASH team goes above and beyond, not just by providing sustainable sources of water, but also collaborating to deliver reliable knowledge and practices to Lao schools and communities.