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Poor water and sanitation contribute to high child malnutrition rates in Cambodia

Poor water and sanitation contribute to high child malnutrition rates in Cambodia
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Bona Khoy
A school girl washes her hands after toilet use at Ponhea Pun school. The school is fully equipped with WASH facility and technologies to manage waste, built by Bremen Overseas Research Development Association (BORDA)

Sectors must cooperate to ensure a healthy and productive population

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, 22 March 2013 - This World Water Day, UNICEF in Cambodia emphasises the link between poor drinking water quality, open defecation in rural areas and malnutrition and calls for cooperation and action among government sectors if Cambodia is to have a healthy and productive population in years to come.

In Cambodia, 50 per cent of people in rural areas do not have access to safe drinking water and over 8 million people in rural areas - or 66 per cent - do not have access to sanitation. Open defecation is a common practice among children and 22 per cent of schools do not have toilets. It is estimated that even in primary schools with toilets some 30 per cent do not work. In these circumstances children are constantly exposed to infection.

“Infection makes children lose their appetite and steals nutrients from the childrens’ bodies, nutrients that are also lost through diarrhea,” says UNICEF Representative to Cambodia, Rana Flowers. "28 per cent of Cambodian children are underweight and four out of ten children are stunted. The solution is achievable in Cambodia - studies have shown that having and using a proper toilet facility and washing hands will reduce child underweight in the country.

“A sick child cannot absorb nutrients efficiently. Malnutrition leads to poorer cognitive development and schooling outcomes and children are more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school. They are less able to work, less productive, and earn less as adults. This presents a heavy economic burden on Cambodia’s health system in terms of child health outcomes and adult chronic disease. It also hampers Cambodia’s development, robbing the country of a healthy, cognitively developed population for generations to come,” says Ms. Flowers.

To break the cycle of infection and malnutrition UNICEF calls for stronger collaboration between the Ministries of Rural Development, Health, Education, Agriculture, Water Resource and Local Government to address the situation holistically.

Under the recently launched National Strategy for Rural Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, a number of positive interventions are in place including: water safety planning (the management of water from the source to tap), household water treatment and safe storage, community-led sanitation improvements, and hygiene education.

However, integration of these activities into programmes with a focus on Health, Social Protection, Food Security or Nutrition will be critical to tackle malnutrition in young children. It will also require greater prioritisation of sanitation and water supply within the Education agenda.

“Cambodia loses over US$146 million in GDP to vitamin and mineral deficiencies every year. However, political will, investment, and a focus on reaching every Cambodian child at home and school with access to improved drinking water and sanitation will make a tremendous difference to the health outcomes for the people of Cambodia and have a long-term benefit for this country’s economic development,” says Ms. Flowers.

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UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. To learn more about UNICEF and its work in Cambodia visit:

For further information, please contact:
Denise Shepherd-Johnson Chief of Communication, UNICEF Cambodia, 012 810 536 or

Please click here for Khmer Version [pdf]



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