Amid Drought, Diarrhea Poses Severe Threat

Teachers at Toul Mead Primary School in Siem Reap province tell students to bring drinking water from home to keep them hydrated in the scorching heat. But water is increasingly hard to come by as the worst drought in decades drags on.

There is no free source of clean water at the school in Varin district, although a large container on campus holds pond water for the school to use to cook breakfast for its students—a meal program funded by the World Food Program.

“There are some snack stalls on our school campus where children can buy clean water, but some of them don’t have money to buy it,” said school director Khon Solonh.

Some students inevitably arrive at school without water, while others run out of their supply before the school day’s end.

“Recently, four students—one boy and three girls—got diarrhea as a result of secretly drinking the unboiled water that our school stores for cooking,” Mr. Solonh said.

While he said the students had recovered after treatment at a nearby health clinic, diminished access to clean drinking water and basic hygiene—such as handwashing—make diarrhea the “most alarming health concern” in the current dry spell, said Sam Ath Khim, a technical officer at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia.

Bouts of diarrhea took the lives of 1,365 children under the age of 4 last year, according to the WHO, and Unicef Cambodia considers diarrhea to be the third most deadly illness for children younger than 5.

People over the age of 65 are also at high risk of fatality when exposed to the illness, Ministry of Health spokesman Ly Sovann said. While there are no statistics on the number of diarrhea cases or related fatalities for this year, the effects of the drought are obvious, he said.

“If we were to see the impact on diarrhea from this drought, I think you could not see yet until the end of the year or when they do the census,” Mr. Sovann said. “But what we can say is it really increased the number of…outbreaks of food poisoning, increased the number of people sick because of diarrhea.”

The most common cause of sickness, he said, was not properly boiling water retrieved from natural sources such as ponds and canals before using it to clean cooking surfaces, prepare food, wash hands or drink.

Water shortages from the drought have become so severe in some provinces, however, that these bodies of water are running dry.

Iman Morooka, chief of communication for Unicef Cambodia, said nearly 40 percent of rural households were using drinking water from “unimproved sources”—such as natural and man-made bodies of water—during the dry season.

In addition, she said, an estimated 2,500 schools affected by this year’s water shortage are likely to see an increase in open defecation and a lack of handwashing by students, increasing exposure to diarrhea-causing disease.

Ministry of Education spokesman Ros Salin said that while the health of students was of great concern to the ministry, action was only being taken at the local level.

According to Mr. Salin, no money from the Education Ministry’s annual budget had been allocated to boost water supplies at schools, but principals had been instructed to dip into their school budgets.

“We are concerned with this issue,” he said. “Because of lack of water, there is water that is not so clean for washing hands or drinking, so that’s why we ask principals to check for water…[and] teach students to wash their hands.”

Mr. Sovann at the Health Ministry said the acute and highly contagious diarrheal disease cholera, which left untreated can lead to death within a matter of hours, was the ministry’s greatest fear.

“We advised our local health officers that if at any hospital or health centers…people have severe dehydration and die of dehydration, we suspect a cholera case,” he said. “So they need to report this.”

But even as monsoon rains have begun to grace the country and the advent of the rainy season is just weeks away, the increased risk of diarrhea is not likely to dissipate, said Dr. Khim of the WHO.

“[T]he issue of water scarcity and increased rainfall following extensive drought prevents proper water absorption into the ground and into small rivers and streams that provide the main source of water for most populations,” he said.

“Inadequate absorption causes the surface runoff and the pollution of drinking-water sources,” he added. “The increased incidence of diarrheal diseases is linked to this water pollution.”

(Additional reporting by Phan Soumy)

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