Slab ta orn village, Kandal province – Six months ago, Sem Lab’s eight children were all on medication. They were suffering from arm and knee aches and continuous diarrhea—a series of ailments caused by drinking unsafe water from a lake near their village of Slab Ta Orn, in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district.
Sem Lab’s family is not alone—international NGOs and government officials say that more than two thirds of Cambodia’s rural population lacks access to safe drinking water.
For Sem Lab, the solution turned out to be a clay water filter the family received from the NGO Rural Development International.
“Before my children had to take medicine. But now they don’t, and I can feel my health is also better,” Sem Lab said, holding a small plastic bag with the blue and yellow pills the children once took regularly.
According to the NGO, which donated 1,000 of these filters in the area as a pilot project, cases of diarrhea in Slab Ta Orn village dropped 94 percent once people started using them.
The clay filters are treated with an antibacterial chemical and are capable of turning 2 liters of water into purified drinking water in one hour, said Mickey Sampson, country director for Rural Development International. The US-based NGO has started making the filters which retail for $2.50, in Kien Svay district to sell to NGOs and individuals, he said.
By signing the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2003, the government vowed to provide 40 percent of Cambodians living in rural areas access to safe drinking water by this year.
The 2004 State of Environment Report, which was released by the Ministry of Environment on Aug 10, states that “Water supply is a key effort of the Royal Government of Cambodia’s policy aimed at poverty reduction for both rural and urban population.”
But at this point, drinking water still remains inaccessible for 68 percent of the rural population, Minister of Rural Development Lu Lay Sreng said.
He declined to comment on the millennium goals for 2005, but said that the government would reach the UN’s goal of providing half of the rural population with safe water by 2015.
The lack of safe drinking water is one of Cambodia’s biggest health threats, said Lu Lay Sreng.
“So many health conditions are related to water,” he said.
Nearly 80 percent of deaths in the country are related to waterborne diseases due to unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation, said Hilda Winarta, project officer for the UN Children’s Fund in Phnom Penh.
“Many families do not treat the water but store it in big jars outside the house,” she said. People also drink water from rivers and lakes, which significantly increases the risk of getting diarrhea, Winarta said.
Working in six provinces, Unicef is trying to support the community water well system, she said. This consists of having a large number of families working together to build and share one well, which still is the most common way to get safe water in Cambodia, Winarta said. But some villagers prefer not to use wells or live too far to make it possible for them to do so, she said.
The clay filters may help villagers in remote areas.
“There isn’t just one answer or one way of solving the water problem,” said Sampson, while standing in the NGO’s production facilities in Kien Svay district.
In the wet season people drink rainwater, but this is not entirely safe, Sampson said.
“Just because it’s wet, it doesn’t mean you can drink it,” he said, noting that providing people with cheap water solutions will not do the job alone.
Basic knowledge of health issues must be improved, Sampson stressed.
Talking about the lack of progress made by the ministry to provide access to drinking water, Winarta said that the ministry is hampered by the fact that it depends on foreign aid to fund its activities.