In 2002 the government committed itself to providing safe drinking water and sanitation to the entire nation by 2025.
One year ago this week, then-minister of rural development Ly Thuch declared 2004 the “water year” in which the government would seek an estimated $60 million from donors to solve Cambodia’s water sanitation problem, which is among the worst in the world.
The past year has seen some successes—downtown Phnom Penh’s water has been declared safe to drink, with some qualifications, and last month the Asian Development Bank agreed to finance a $9 million grant and $9 million loan for rural water access.
But bureaucratic, educational, cultural and technological challenges remain, officials and a World Bank expert said this week, throwing into question whether even half of the nation’s rural population will have access to safe drinking water by 2015.
According to the UN, 34 percent of Cambodians have access to safe drinking water while only 16 percent have access to either a toilet or sanitary latrine.
The greatest improvement over the last 10 years has been in Phnom Penh.
“In 1992, you could find raw sewage coming out of the faucets,” Jan-Willem Rosenboom country team leader of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Project said Monday. “Today you can drink the tap water in central Phnom Penh. On the outskirts it is still not safe.”
The standard for water safety is the amount of chlorine, the chemical that kills dangerous water-borne parasites, found in water flowing from taps. In the central-city system, households are now receiving water with 0.2 parts chlorine per million parts water.
But before anyone abandons drinking bottled water, one must look at one’s household water system, Rosenboom said.
“One of the major problems is private water tanks,” he said. “In the bad old days there was a problem with water pressures, so houses installed rooftop water tanks. If these tanks are large, and especially those with open tops, the chlorine will dissipate.”
In order to get safe tap water to the city’s outskirts, the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy is building chlorine injection stations there, Rosenboom said.
But the situation beyond the city outskirts is dire, he added.
“We are not going to make the MDG,” Rosenboom said, speaking of the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of providing 50 percent of Cambodians with drinking water. “Our starting position was very low…It is going to take much more investment.”
Rosenboom said that studies have revealed that well pumps provided by donors often go unused because spare parts cannot be found; that villagers refuse to drink chlorinated pipe water because they are not used to its taste; and that, in the wet season, villagers return to drinking pond water because well water often has harmless, if bad smelling, iron in it.
Dr Mao Saray, director of the Ministry of Rural Development’s department of rural water supply, disagreed with this assessment Monday.
“The evidence is that we are on the right track,” he said, adding the ADB project should give access to an additional 10 percent of the people in six years. Meeting the UN’s goal is crucial for Cambodia’s future, all parties agree.
Poorly managed water leads to diarrhea caused by bacteria, amoebas, giardia and intestinal worms. It can also cause liver damage due to hepatitis A; cancer caused by toxic chemicals; skin diseases caused by poor quality water; infections like schistosomiasis caused by unsafe bathing; and the spread of malaria from mosquitoes born in ponds.
With 78 percent of Cambodians defecating in the open, according to government figures, contamination of water is inevitable—and deadly.
“Our projects are important because every year, our children are dying,” Mao Saray said, noting a recent report by the UN Children’s Fund that says mortality for Cambodian children under age 5 is increasing.
“If you drink unprotected water today, by tomorrow you will have diarrhea,” Rosenboom said. “If kids drink it and go untreated, they will be dead by the end of the week.”