Local groundwater and other water resources, while not considered a health risk, are not ideal for drinking because they contain iron and salt levels that are higher than international standards, according to a comprehensive study to be released today.
The Study on Groundwater Development in Southern Cambodia, conducted by Japanese experts and the Ministry of Rural Development, recommends drilling more than 1,000 wells in more than 240 villages designed to reach deeper into the earth and avoid contamination.
“In Cambodia, only 20 percent of the population have access to clean drinking water,” said Ly Thuch, the ministry’s secretary of state. “Water could kill people. In order to improve quality of life in rural Cambodia, we really need to develop a water-supply system.”
The study found that water resources such as rivers, ponds and wells contain colon bacilli and high levels of iron, which exceed World Health Organization standards. And some underground water sources beneath basement rock layers are also high in salt, the study says.
“As the WHO made international standards for drinking water, iron-rich and salt-rich water is not suitable for drinking because of its smell and taste,” said Akira Kamata, visiting team leader.
Joel Vanderburg, of the WHO’s office in Phnom Penh, said that higher contamination of iron and salt in groundwater is not unusual in the world and is not considered a health risk.
A major health problem, Kamata noted, would be bacteria in rivers, ponds and shallow wells which could cause abnormal problems. While the survey did not highlight highly dangerous bacteria, Kamata insisted that development of deep wells is necessary in order to reduce risks.
The study was conducted in 472 villages in five provinces—Svay Rieng, Prey Veng, Kandal, Takeo and Kompong Speu—and three districts in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It began in December 1996 and continued two-and-a-half years. Japan provided $1.6 million and technical assistance for the project.
According to the summary of the draft final report, villagers use rivers, ponds, shallow wells, combined wells and tube wells with hand pump. About 34 percent of the surveyed areas have some form of well. The existing ponds, shallow wells and combined wells contain colon bacilli. Many of the wells also dry up in the dry season, the results show.
The study also found that in many areas groundwater in test wells is high in iron, especially in Svay Rieng and Prey Veng. In a village in Svay Rieng, the ratio of iron was more than 30 times higher than the WHO standard.
The ratio of salt in the test wells was also troublesome. In one surveyed village in Takeo, the level was about nine times higher than the standard.
The study team concluded that 241 villages out of the 472 surveyed urgently need to construct more than 1,000 deep wells with hand pumps to provide clean water. The study estimates it would cost about $29.5 million.
The ministry and the Japanese government have agreed to extend the water development study project to northern provinces in order to get a comprehensive view of water resources and its quality, Ly Thuch said.
Vanderburg noted that the study results would be useful to develop a national water supply system since none of the agencies have ever conducted a water quality assessment so far.
According to the ministry, about 14,000 drilled wells have been constructed throughout the country since 1993 in a result of emergency relief activities.