development together volunteers humanitarian engineering

When Help is No Longer Needed

We received a phone call recently from our Not For Profit partner in Hanoi, Vietnam. At first, I thought the news being delivered was not what I wanted to hear – and it certainly was not expected. The village Chief where we had been volunteering on a water project for the last two years told us, “We don’t need you to come back”.  We were in shock and at first we couldn’t understand why this would be the case. However, by the end of the conversation I was over the moon!

Development Together is a Perth based organisation that facilitates internship and work experience for university students and professionals to the developing world, where they work in partnership with local Not For Profit groups on community development projects. For the past two years we have been partnering with the Centre for Sustainable Development Studies in Hanoi, Vietnam to identify rural villages in need of assistance to develop access to clean water. We have sent small groups of Engineering and Environment students to a remote village in the Da Bac region, around 3.5 hours’ drive west of Hanoi. This mountainous region is very poor with a large number of people living in poverty.


Development Together volunteers with some members of our NFP group in Vietnam

In December 2017 we were invited to Xom Ke village which consists of 20 households. In 1994 these families had been relocated to the edge of the largest hydroelectric dam in Vietnam (and the 2nd largest in South East Asia). This enormous dam on the Da River produces more than 27% of Vietnam’s electricity requirements. More than 89 000 people were relocated, and 13 000 hectares of land was submerged to create this dam.


Volunteers Tour Mo Hem village to learn about the water issues they face, with the Da River and Dam in the background

Prior to the dam being built, the local people relied heavily on traditional agricultural practices and grew rice in abundance. However, since the valley floor was flooded to create the dam, they have had to become more creative in their approach and have had to move up the steep mountainous walls. Many locals now conduct small scale farming and clear large areas of jungle to grow vegetables to feed their own families or have chosen to raise cattle on the steep hill sides. The cattle roam freely directly impacting on soil erosion, stability and leading to large amounts of cow manure contaminating local water sources. The use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers to support growing crops for human consumption, and to feed the cattle, has also led to additional contamination of water sources, directly affecting the health of humans who consume this water.

Our first Needs Assessment was conducted collaboratively with the Chief Matriarch and her community members. One of the biggest problems they face is access to clean drinking water. There was only one small water storage tank that held 1.5kl of water, allowing only 8 household’s access to water. The remaining households collected water from the stream closer to the village, which carried more contaminants.

The source of the water was located 1.2km from the village, in a small river, where the water was deemed to be cleanest. There was no filtration system at the source or on the tank and no maintenance plan to keep it clean – upon inspection it was contaminated with debris, algae and potentially harmful microbe and bacteria. The existing water pipe that brought water from the source to the tank had been damaged extensively by cattle repeatedly treading on the pipe. All of the households in the village boiled their water as a treatment method to kill off any pathogens that may be present.

Volunteers trek through the jungle to inspect the source of the village’s drinking water

At a community meeting it was decided that we would work in partnership with the local community to build a new water tank that would provide clean water to all of the families, and that the tank would have a filtration system in place. Our volunteers spent time in community consultation identifying the problems and accommodating locals’ requests and recommendations.

Volunteers meet with the local community to discuss the proposed new water tank design

A final design was proposed and approved by the village Chief and community. Due to the low income in this village, we assisted with a financial donation towards the material costs of the project. Each family in the village agreed to provide one person per day to assist with the construction and labour required.

Volunteers work alongside local villagers on the new water tank

Over a 3-week period, we worked collaboratively with locals and the final product was a tank that allows all the village households to access this water and holds close to 6.6kl. We laid 1.2km of new pipe, raised so that cattle could not damage it. A simple filtration system was established at the water source and at the entry point to the tank. An education session regarding maintenance was conducted and villagers agreed to take responsibility to care for and maintain the tank.

We were again back to the village and returned in December 2018. Our Needs Assessment revealed that water from the tank still had some contaminants, mainly sand deposits, and potentially unseen bacteria and microbes. In consultation with the village we determined there was a need for water filtration systems in each of the 22 households. We designed and built a simple carbon/sand/pebble purification system to work alongside the existing water tank.


Volunteers working on new water filtration systems with local villagers

Over three weeks we constructed 15 new water filters with the villagers assisting. Unfortunately, we were unable to complete all 22 water filters due to time constraints. Once again, due to the low income in this village, we made a financial donation towards the project, and each supplied one person per day to assist with the construction and labour needs. Prior to our group leaving, we noted a few local families who had not received a water filter, had begun constructing their own water filter system using the design and principles that we had used.

Our next volunteer group was due to start in early July 2019. We began planning to return Xom Ke and finalise the outstanding water filters. However, when our partner group approached the village Chief, we received THAT phone call – the one where the village chief said, “We don’t need you to come back”.

Our hearts dropped. Not only because of the work that had gone into getting the group there, but also because we had spent so much time teaching them how to work in collaboration and partnership, to make sure we were meeting the village’s needs. When I heard those words, I was terrified we had done something wrong, or offended the village Chief in some way, and that was why she didn’t want us back.

Much to our delight this was not the case. As it transpired the local villagers had successfully completed the project themselves! They had self-funded and finished the remaining water filter systems using the designs we had left with them. Now all of the families had access to clean water.

This means that there is less chance of illness  and more likelihood of people being able to improve their economic outcomes as they are able to work each day and provide for their families. It also meant that the project we had been working on had proven sustainability, and would positively impact on the health, social and economic well being for this community.

At the request of another village Chief who had heard about our work in Xom Ke, our team was relocated. This week they have been conducting a Needs Assessment and identified that there are 29 households in this village also facing similar water access problems.

Volunteers conducting a site inspection at the new village of Mo Hem

We hope that our volunteers will be able to achieve similar results in this village over the month of July, and that ultimately, we are able to do ourselves out of a job again!

Learn more about how you can get involved by visiting our website at or email


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