Behind a plain set of wood doors on the first floor at the Environment Ministry in a room brimming with bottles, burners and beakers, a small and growing group of technicians measures the excrement in Cambodia’s water.
Started in 1995 and run for the moment on European Commission funds, the Ministry of the Environment’s Water Quality Control Laboratory bakes, boils, grows and chemically alters water samples from across the country, quantifying what many believe is a water supply succumbing to a growing population.
The lab drew its first sample Dec 18, 1997, from a spot noted in the lab’s official orange ledger as “paper factory.” Since then, it has tested Cambodia’s water 405 times at sites nationwide. Lab workers test the water’s pH, conductivity, mass, chemical pollution and some 15 other parameters.
Heng Nareth, deputy director of pollution control, closely follows the lab’s work from his second-floor office. “Right now I have great worries about wastewater from households discharged directly to [the Tonle Sap] river,” he said. He studies a computer-generated map of Phnom Penh that hangs behind a desk in the laboratory that precisely plots the location of test sample sites and sewage ponds across the city. He reaches up to touch it.
“Right now, I have great worries about this half because it discharges straight into the river,” he says as he sweeps his arm across the right side of the map, an area that includes everything in Phnom Penh east of Monivong Boulevard. The wastewater causes “some problems,” he says. “We have found many, many bacteria in the river.” The ones they have found are those that breed in feces.
The city’s tap water comes from wells in the Tonle Sap, the Mekong and various spots around town. In view of that, what does Heng Nareth drink? “Normally, I drink the tap water. But I boil it.”
Is bottled water then a safer bet? Heng Nareth becomes uncomfortable. He opens the ledger to a page with the lab results of nearly 20 types of bottled water. Columns that should show zeros, don’t.
He quickly shuts the ledger and says, “Fifty percent do not comply” to World Health Organization standards. He says the lab was only doing “informal testing,” and that, “Right now our department focuses only on the effluent.”
Heng Nareth traces the effluent problem to a growing population and the city’s antiquated sewer system. It is clogged and can no longer handle the waste dumped into it.
Also, the half-dozen sewage settling ponds in Phnom Penh are full. The ponds (where people also bathe, fish and grow vegetables) should work as simple natural filters: polluted water flows in, garbage settles out, clean water flows on. But the ponds are clogged with up to 4 meters of sludge, some dating to the colonial era. This causes sewage to run into surrounding neighborhoods.
But there are plans to rebuild the sewer system with help from a Japanese grant, Heng Nareth says. He hopes to begin work next year.
Problems keep arising, though. The settling ponds hold sludge contaminated with hazardous waste, so it can’t easily be treated and sold as fertilizer—the original plan. Two systems are needed: one to carry and treat hazardous effluent; another to carry away rainwater, which increases sewer loads ten-fold in rainy months. Meanwhile, people keep moving to the city.
Heng Nareth and the lab also face a more serious threat. Their EC funding runs out at the end of the year. “If we want to improve the water quality,” he says, “we cannot say that ‘This is no good’ without analyzing.”
“I call for another donor to help us.”