Keeping the water flowing during drought
Climate-resilient water supply systems in areas most vulnerable to changing temperatures provide children with clean water
8 August 2022, Kampong Speu Province – When a particularly harsh drought in 2019 left his pond dry, Peng Hong was forced to cut the water supply to the hundreds of families connected to his treatment system.
"I closed the operation for one month because there was no water,” said Hong, who said it was hard to get some of his customers to understand that there was little he could do besides wait for the rain, and that during that time, from morning until evening, he didn’t want to pick up the phone. “This was the reality. They could see that there was no water in the pond. There was no water to serve them. I tried to ask for their understanding.”
He is a private water supply operator in Kampong Speu province, where he delivers clean, piped water pumped from a 30,000 m3 pond through a treatment plant and into homes in 25 villages across four districts. The prolonged shortage in 2019 left the families connected to the supply needing to find alternative sources to meet their daily needs, which can include cooking, drinking, washing and in many rural areas irrigating crops. Some families pumped water from boreholes dug close to their home, while others depended on water delivered by trucks.
Not only can these alternative means be costly, but if the water is not properly treated it can pose major health risks, especially for children. Diarrheal diseases as a result of poor sanitation have been linked to stunting and impaired development and continues to be a leading cause of death for children under five in Cambodia. For households who depend on agriculture, water shortages also impact a farmer’s ability to grow their crops and put a strain on their income and ability to feed their family.
While many Cambodians still depend on traditional household methods to meet their daily water needs, including consuming water from privately-owned wells or from natural sources such as ponds, lakes or streams, water services have expanded in recent years in Cambodia. This means more and more rural Cambodians are able to access water from sources that are considered safe and reliable, including private piped water systems and bottled water enterprises.
Yet even households who have made the switch to the serviced system, water is not always guaranteed. The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather conditions in recent years, including drought, makes it difficult for even private suppliers with more sophisticated operations to meet the demand from their customers. And as more and more people want to connect to the pipes, without improving how the water is managed and ensuring the operation can withstand climate shocks, accessing quality water will likely become a struggle felt most deeply by the most vulnerable.
“In the past there was never a shortage at this pond,” says 33-year-old Eng, father to a six-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, explaining that before the piped system was introduced in 2017, community members would use their own motorised pumps to collect water from the pond. “It was only used for small villages. When a larger and larger number of people began taking water from that pond, there wasn’t enough later on.”
During the shortage, he says he and his family resorted to buying water from trucks to meet their needs.
“We would also need to buy the storage jar to store the water we buy from the truck,” he says. “It was a high expenditure for the household to supply water to the children.”
Now servicing more than one thousand families, Peng Hong is working to make sure that he never has to switch off the system again – and that his customers can be confident that the supply is stable, even during difficult dry seasons when rain becomes more and more scarce. With support from UNICEF, the Cambodian Water Supply Association (CWA) has drilled and connected four boreholes to his system, providing an alternative source of water in case of future shortages, and installed a solar energy system to power the treatment plant and pump the water to the households.
“I feel happy and useful that the community received good benefits from that,” says Hong, explaining that pumping water to the households using stored solar energy not only boosts water pressure but means they can be sure the supply does not get cut off at night. “The people receive a better quality of service.”
Pumping water directly from the boreholes to the treatment plant also lowers costs of production as it requires fewer chemicals to treat compared to the pond.
Before connecting to Hong’s system, parents Neang and Chanty would depend on a borehole dug near their home for their daily water needs and had continued to use it whenever there was not enough water coming through the pipes. They say that not only is the piped water cheaper because of the reduced electricity costs but that they have also noticed a difference in their children’s health.
“If we pump the water from the borehole, it costs nearly double per month,” says Neang, who uses the water for cooking, washing and drinking. “And we have not observed any case of diarrhoea in the children.”
“When we need water, it’s easy. Just turn on the tap,” she adds, and that the money they save per month they can put towards buying food for the kids.
Thanks to funding support from Irish Aid, UNICEF is helping CWAs and private water suppliers like Peng Hong to install climate-resilient water systems across the provinces hat are most vulnerable to climate change.
It’s a collaborative effort with suppliers like Peng Hong, who also contribute their own portion to upgrading their system alongside technical assistance and recommendations from partners. He is now spending up to $30,000 to enlarge the pond, dig a second pond and lay more pipe as more and more households are wanting to connect to the supply.
UNICEF works with the Royal Government of Cambodia to both upgrade existing water sources and develop new sources that are resilient to droughts and floods. By mapping out and analysing areas that are most vulnerable to climate shocks, for example those with households dependent on agriculture, UNICEF pinpoints areas most in need of support and conducts assessments to assess the feasibility of new ground and surface water sources to meet demand. A water safety plan also aims to address the existing and potential challenges to water security and to provide a framework to ensure sustainable water supply in the future.
“A limited availability of safe water for drinking and for practising basic hygiene affects children’s health, development and future well-being,” said Soriya Thun, UNICEF WASH specialist. “Through Irish Aid, we are supporting the Royal Government of Cambodia and partners to upgrade and develop new water supply systems that can withstand climate-related events, including by analysing the risk of disaster and developing WASH-specific preparedness plans. We want to ensure that Cambodian children have reliable access to clean water in homes, schools and healthcare facilities, particularly in rural and other at-risk areas. Even as weather patterns become increasingly unpredictable, communities should be confident that they have enough water, uncontaminated by life-threatening pollutants, in the years to come.”