The yay chan sinn—water containers kept outside nearly every home in Myanmar for passing strangers to quench their thirst—are testament to the kindness Burmese people hold dear in their culture, especially when clean water is such a precious resource in the country.
While most households in the Yangon region are using improved water sources, the situation looks grimmer in other parts of Myanmar; about one-fifth of households in the whole country have no access to clean water.
Manning the front lines in developing countries around the world, UNICEF has been working in Myanmar since 1950. The children’s organization has long regarded access to clean water a vital part of children’s wellbeing, considering their access to safe water, the journey they must take to collect it, and its quality.
Working with Starwood Hotels & Resorts (now Marriott International) to extend their long-running partnership Check Out For Children into the region, UNICEF is hoping to tackle one of the biggest health issues in Myanmar—with the help from tourists, $US1 at a time.
Participating hotels are asking guests to volunteer an extra dollar on their room charge when they check out. With each dollar providing nine children with safe drinking water for an entire month, it’s a small price to pay for an impossibly big reward.
Launched in 1996, the Check Out For Children scheme has raised more than $35 million globally and reached over 2.7 million children across the Asia Pacific region.
‘With one dollar we can provide safe water, it’s as simple as that,’ says Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF representative to Myanmar. ‘That money lets us work with communities to set up water points and teach them how to maintain them.
‘Check Out For Children is new for Myanmar and we’re still setting it up, but we’ve seen it working in other parts of the world. It really can make a difference.’
In light of recent events, the future of Myanmar children is more vulnerable than ever.
Violence has been steadily escalating in the region as tensions between the Rakhine state and the minority Muslim community reached breaking point at the end of 2016, with humanitarian organizations desperately trying to access the area to provide aid, while calling for an independent investigation on human rights violations and abuses.
With an estimated 92,000 Rohingya already displaced, thousands of children are in urgent need of homes, security, medical care, clean water and education.
The donation collected for Check Out For Children is going directly to UNICEF’s relief efforts.
It’s an unusually positive message for an industry that so often divides opinion amongst charity groups—with tourism blamed for generating as much unwelcome attention as it is economic recovery.
‘Tourism brings additional resources and contributes hugely to national development—so in that respect it’s very welcome, but it’s vital that it’s done responsibly,’ explains Bainvel.
‘An increase in tourism can end up putting children at greater risk of abuse as well as increasing what we call ‘orphanage tourism’ if safeguards aren’t put in place to make tour operators understand the situation.’
So this scheme is a delicately balanced solution to a monumental problem in Myanmar. Funneling loose change into ground-level projects like the water and sanitation program means UNICEF can target the country’s bigger health and social issues individually.
With a new and more committed administration, the country has also developed its first ever National WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Strategy and Investment Plan, in which UNICEF helped shape the National Standards for WASH in Schools. The plan is currently under review and approval in the parliament and is expected to greatly improve clean water access coverage in homes, schools and health facilities.
‘We’ve already seen developments in the reform of the education system and we’re hoping that’s going to start paying dividends soon,’ says Bainvel, hopeful about Myanmar’s next decade despite the recent events.
‘In the next 10 years we’re hoping to see more children attending schools—and attending better schools—and we’re working in partnership with the ministry of health and several NGOs to provide immunization to more remote areas.
‘Malnutrition is still a huge problem, but over the last few years we’ve seen a slight improvement—so that’s another area we’re staying hopeful about. The children of Myanmar are facing a lot of problems at the moment, but we really can do something about it.’