Diverse, inspiring, and full of potential, Asia stands proudly as the largest continent, a vast territory where rich experiences and culture abound. In particular, Southeast Asia is home to unblemished landscapes, pristine beaches stretching for miles, stunning lakes and waterfalls, and forests overflowing with boldly colored flora. City streets tempt the senses with stalls full of exotic dishes. Ancient structures leave you in awe as you turn every corner. Locals welcome you with warm hospitality and engage you in timeless stories of their heritage. When one thinks of Asia, a vibrant tropical paradise comes to mind.
There is, however, always another side to any story. Just miles off of the spectacular beaches of Da Nang, Vietnam are rural villages where families use poorly constructed toilets that are burdensome to maintain. Around one-fifth of Vietnam’s population do not have toilets that meet international standards, affecting their hygiene and health. For all the beauty of Cambodia’s forests (which are in danger themselves), there are isolated communities who cannot afford latrines at home and dispose of bodily waste into ponds and rivers, contaminating the environment and water resources. Six million Cambodians lack access to improved sanitation, and some 4 million lack access to safe water. Laos’ Kuang Si Falls are a sight to behold, but what we don’t see are the thousands of children who do their business in their backyards and forget to wash their hands after, making them vulnerable to diseases. Unsurprisingly, Laos has one of the highest under-5 mortality rates in Asia, with many deaths caused by diarrhea, malaria, and other illnesses.
These countries have some of the most beautiful sights in the world, yet are home to people who struggle to access basic needs such as toilets and sanitation systems— structures integral to everyday life and good health. Despite these difficulties, the people show resilience and the will to overcome adversity, even with limited means. They continue to work hard to provide their families’ needs the best way they can and strive towards a life of dignity.
As June marks the International Day of the Tropics, our stories this month help us examine the reality of the tropics with new eyes – how, amidst the beauty and wonder of places in Southeast Asia, are people whose lives are contrary to the envisioned paradise; and how the simple gift of a clean toilet can mean a world of difference.