Faced with a new threat of naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater, health and development officials on Monday kicked off a workshop on how to draw up and monitor standards for drinking water.
Bacteria remain the biggest threat by far in Cambodian drinking water, with diarrhea from contaminated water being a major cause of death in infancy and childhood, World Health Organization representative Jim Tulloch told workshop participants Monday.
But arsenic has emerged as a new threat in certain areas as populations increase and new wells are dug. A 2000 survey found troubling levels of arsenic in 9 percent of groundwater sources.
But in limited areas the danger may be higher, officials warned. A survey of 1,000 wells in Kien Svay and Takhmau districts this year found as many as one-quarter of wells exceeding international standards for arsenic content, said Bill Morris of Cooperative Services International, which conducted the survey.
Early surveys have found a few cases of skin problems in children that may be traceable to arsenic, said Dr Prak Piseth Rainsey, director of preventive medicine at the Ministry of Health. Arsenic-related illnesses, including cancers, may take over a decade to emerge, she said.
Because it is found underground, arsenic presents a dilemma for development officials, who have long encouraged digging deep wells as an alternative to bacteria-laden surface water. Well water is still generally the safer source for water, said Steven Iddings, an environmental engineer with the WHO.
Arsenic has poisoned thousands and caused hundreds of deaths in China, India and Bangladesh. But in Cambodia the problem is probably limited to areas around the Mekong River, Iddings said. The arsenic probably stems from natural mineral deposits in the Himalayan mountains that has been distributed in lowland countries by rivers over thousands of years, he said.
“Cambodia has an opportunity to avoid the ill effects [of arsenic] if the government responds in due course,” Iddings said.
Villagers should be told not to drink from arsenic-contaminated wells and to depend on other sources such as collected rainwater, he said.
Officials from 25 NGOs have begun collecting water quality samples from throughout the country for a central government database, said James Mecklejohn of Unicef, which provided the testing kits this year.
Developing water standards is an important step toward receiving donor funds for testing and monitoring water quality, Iddings said. Cleaning up Cambodia’s water supply can be a tricky process, government officials said. Phnom Penh residents often complain about the smell and taste of chlorine-treated water, said Ing Chea of Phnom Penh’s Water Supply Authority.
In addition to the arsenic worry, the wells often produce water that is high in iron or manganese, said Po Samnang, a Ministry of Health scientist. The minerals are harmless but the water can taste bad and stain food or clothing, he said.