The quest for clean water in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Jong Hyon Hwa turns on a tap with water supplied by Concern Worldwide’s gravity fed water supply system in Daesong, Singye, North Hwanghae, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Photo taken by Pae Ryong Il / Concern Worldwide.
Jong Hyon Hwa turns on a tap with water supplied by Concern Worldwide’s gravity fed water supply system in Daesong, Singye, North Hwanghae, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Photo taken by Pae Ryong Il / Concern Worldwide.

Daesong and Sinhung are two of the most remote villages of Sin’gye county in the southern half of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Situated among flatlands where spring water is scarce and the ground-water table is low, the quest for water has been a daily headache for locals until lately.

Water scarcity

Until recently, the people of Daesong and Sinhung have had to trek up to 9km each morning to fetch clean water using wooden handcarts loaded with containers – a task that would consume a large part of their work day. In the rainy season, rain-water collection bolstered supplies for washing. But during winter when temperatures could drop as low as -20°C, water could be so scarce that whole families would often have to wash from a single bowl of water.

Health concerns

When Concern Worldwide first visited Daesong, village leader Pak Chang Ho told us that locals were unable to wash their clothes in winter as a result. There were also frequent occurrences of severe diarrhoea and water-borne diseases, especially in children.  

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1970s, electric pumping systems provided water to these villages. But over time these systems began to fail, not helped by irregular and highly fluctuating electric power supplies.

North Hwanghae Province in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Source: Google Maps
North Hwanghae Province in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Source: Google Maps

Gravity-fed system

A large part of our work in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea focusses on water, sanitation and hygiene promotion. Working with local teams in Daesong and Sinhung last year, we implemented a gravity-fed system for water supply to each village, using a lake water source some kilometres away.

Construction proved challenging due to the lack of suitable construction materials nearby. Stones, gravel and sand had to travel up to 15km by truck, tractors, oxen, or even hand cart. But despite the challenges, the system in Daesong was completed in March, with Sinhung households turning on their taps in November.

Dramatic improvement

The new water systems have dramatically improved lives for the villagers. Pak Chang Ho described the reaction in Daesong village:

When the water came out of the taps, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Actually nobody in our village believed that water would flow from the lake such a long distance. Everybody, the elders and the children in the village were so excited…some of the grandmothers cried to see water running. It was like a holiday.

Despite a drought last summer, the village has had no scarcity of drinking water. “During hot summer days, villagers had the pleasure of a bath,” he told us.

Increased productivity

There has been a large decrease in the number of water-borne diseases reported in Daesong as compared to last year. Furthermore, as villagers no longer have to spend so much of their day in pursuit of water, the total man days available for agricultural work have almost doubled – with tangible results. Daesong celebrated a bumper harvest last year with the village’s yield 1.7 times higher than the previous year. This is the highest recorded annual crop yield in the history of Daesong village.

Pak Ho Chang said:

In our village, there was a saying that when a guest comes, he can get food, but no water for drinking. All Koreans know this saying, but now this has no meaning for us. I must say that the newly built water supply system has completely changed our lives – dramatically improved them.

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