Squatting in a rice field to relieve oneself might appear to be a cost-free way to answer the call of nature, but in actuality it is a contributing factor to what costs Cambodia about half a billion dollars every year, according to the World Bank.
Every year, an estimated 11,000 deaths and 9.5 million cases of diarrhea result from poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene in Cambodia.
But the sanitation problem rarely receives attention or funds proportional to the damage caused, according to the World Bank.
“It is one of the forgotten areas of development,” said Guy Hutton, a regional senior water and sanitation economist at the bank’s Water and Sanitation Program.
Part of the reason for this oversight, according to Hutton, is that the effects of sanitation are not necessarily immediate and often spill over into a wide variety of sectors.
But, for the first time in Cambodia, a new five-country study on water and sanitation attempts to quantify those elusive effects—and puts the price tag at $448 million per year, which translates in Cambodia to a per capita loss of approximately $32.
Health costs make up the largest portion of these losses—totaling $187 million a year—and include tangible health care costs—$13.4 million—as well as the difficult-to-quantify amount associated with the early loss of life—estimated by the report at $168.6 million. Actual, physical dollars spent on health care measured $10.7 million.
These economic losses, which also include the cost of accessing drinkable water—$150 million—and the impact felt by the tourism industry, are equivalent to 7.2 percent of the GDP in 2005. That figure is roughly equivalent to the GDP contribution of the fishery sector in Cambodia, according to the study, which was executed here by the Economic Institute of Cambodia.
“Economic costs move politicians and donors more than, say, ‘x’ number of deaths,” Hutton said, and while improved sanitation won’t lead to an overnight GDP improvement equivalent to 7.2 percent, “it would have major long-term economic implications.”
About 10 million people are estimated to still defecate in open areas, and the report states that around $37.5 million could be saved if people didn’t have to take time out of their work day to walk 10 minutes trying to find a quiet place to go to the bathroom.
The report measures an estimated loss to the country’s tourism sector of $74 million a year due to a calculated potential number of people who don’t visit or cut their trip short due to poor sanitation and sickness.
Tourism Minister Thong Khon said that current sanitation conditions have a definite impact on tourism, but he couldn’t speculate as to how great that impact might be.
“Although we do not have hygienic toilets at all tourism places, we have seen the improvement of sanitation,” he said, adding that sanitation is among the chief concerns of his ministry, especially in relation to Cambodia’s increasingly popular beaches.
Nasir Hossan, a World Health Organization environmental engineer who works on water and sanitation, said Wednesday that rainwater carries human fecal matter into rivers and canals where it infects the groundwater and can even wind up in the vegetables we eat.