On the centrality of water in Rural Cambodia

Today we went round the corner from CWF to present a cheque to a  NGO Teuk Saat 1001, which  is a project dedicated to providing clean drinking water to rural areas in a sustainable framework.  Honestly, I signed up to go along to the presentation as part of my ruling to take up all opportunities that present themselves to me in order to make the most of my time here in Phnom Penh.  I hadn’t expected it all to be so genuinely interesting and also sobering.

So we met at the CWF school premises, and then ambled round the corner to the NGO Teuk Saat premises.  It isn’t far at all, and I’ve walked past a few times without knowing what they do.

We took off our shoes before being welcomed in. We were shown upstairs to a formal meeting room, where two members of the project team were there to welcome us and they gave a presentation about the organisation and what they do.  I’ve taken what’s below from their website as it offers a good summary of what was covered.

What we do

In Cambodia, inadequate water supply is a daily reality for millions of rural residents. According to WHO (2011), more than 6 million rural Cambodians do not have access to an affordable source of treated water leading to a high prevalence of water borne diseases.

Rural populations rely on solutions available locally such as untreated surface water (ponds, rivers) with its associated risks of bacterial diseases or groundwater (wells).

Between 1999 and 2000, the presence of natural arsenic was confirmed in Cambodian groundwater (Cambodia Drinking Water Quality Assessment conducted jointly by the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy). According to a report published by UNICEF in 2009, 2.25 million people are estimated to live within arsenic affected areas.

Cambodian NGOs and institutions therefore face a significant challenge with one the one hand a high reliance of rural populations on untreated surface water and on the other hand a significant contamination of shallow ground-waters with arsenic and the associated risks of arsenicosis and cancer.

Tuek Saat 1001’s approach: provide a high quality service to rural communities. Our mission is to improve the health of rural communities in rural Cambodia by establishing and supporting sustainable social enterprises, which produce and distribute safe-drinking water locally within their villages and guarantee the quality of the water. Inspired by the idea that “we drink 90% of our diseases” as Louis Pasteur used to say, we believe that focusing on drinking water (1.50L /day /person) can significantly improve people’s health and complement standard water and sanitation infrastructure approaches.

Teuk Saat 1001 is active in Cambodia since 2007, where all projects are implemented and managed by Mr. Chay Lo, also a co-founder of 1001 fontaines, the main NGO in France.

Mr Lo himself, sent apologies that he was not there, but his colleagues did a grand job in his absence. They began by showing us a Teuk Saat health promotion video that is intended to demonstrate the link between poor water and child sickness to rural communities.  Now I’ve been out to rural areas, I recognise the imagery of the stilt houses, and massive clay water containers that are outside every dwelling and supply water for everything from drinking to washing.

Key points I got, 80% of people have no access to safe water in rural areas.  Poor quality water is a major source of illness.  This NGO works to use social enterprise to improve access to water in a sustainable way.  They work with communities to identify a potentially safe source of water.  Someone in that community needs to come up with land to build on. Then the NGO provides the water treatment facilities, the start up bottles, expertise to get started. Initially they cover all costs of quality checking and train up in the techniques of producing safe water.  After 14 months this is withdrawn, then the local entrepreneur must cover his costs by selling the water to local people.  From memory, during the start up period this person will get a monthly salary of $100 but extra for all bottles sold over a certain number.  10% equivalent of all sales is donated as fresh water for children in schools, working on the basis of 1/2 litre per child per day.  Children go to school either in the morning or afternoon – it still doesn’t sound like a lot of water though.

Water is cleaned of chemicals through filtration techniques, and from bacterial contaminants using ultra violet. Bottles are cleaned between refills wtih chlorine solutions.  It is low-tech. The system cannot currently cope with removing arsenic from water so the location of an appropriate arsenic free ground water supply is critical.  Some NGOs have previously provided rural areas wtih filters. This works for a while, but is ultimately non-sustainable. The filters eventually become dirty and useless unless properly cleaned or replaced, when the NGOs move out or move on, the problem returns.  This NGO has a different sustainable operating model. They set up someone to produce clean water, create a market of very cheap affordable water (1000 reil for 20 litres, though the $3 deposit for the initial bottle can be a barrier to very poor families – shocking, but true).  Mostly people embrace it.  Research has already shown how school attendance has dramatically improved due to reduced sickness, and that saves families spending money they don’t have on avoidable medical expenses.

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So it was an impressive project. It brings you up short though, such a necessity as clean water is not available here.  For people who romanticise living in rural areas, ruminate on that.  After our talk, the president(?) of CWF presented a cheque towards the project.  It was for exacty $1001 dollars, a nice touch, given the name of the project.  Water quality is a subject close to his heart, he told us at his induction how in his own rural childhood he too drank from potentially contaminated sources.  The local people here are really committed to what they do.  It is hearfelt, the desire to improve things. The project were delighted to get money locally. Of course funds are needed from overseas to prop up the NGO, but local money means Cambodians taking responsibility for their own futures I suppose.

water-cheque-presentation

Photos were duly taken of us all posing around the cheque, and then we had a brief guided tour of the building, which gave me the opportunity to get some more city view snaps.  We may have the opportunity to visit a water processing plant in the environs at some future point.. count me in!

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