Working towards water for all Cambodians
UNICEF, the Cambodian Government and partners are collaborating to increase access to safe running water to Cambodians in rural areas such as Kampong Speu
“When I started in the business 20 years ago, I would deliver water to people around Kampong Speu by horse-cart – though at least horses were faster than oxes!” laughs Sorn Sophat.
“But there were lots of areas where you couldn’t even drive a cart back then. About three quarters of people had no vehicles at all, not even carts, definitely not motorbikes or cars. They had to go and collect water themselves, usually on bicycles, which meant they couldn’t carry much on each trip.”
“In fact, for poorer families with really limited access to water, one family member might be dedicated full time to collecting water, going back and forth,” adds Som Kunthea. “It could be a real drain on resources and help trap families in poverty.” Mr. Kunthea is now Department Director for the Cambodian Government’s Water Supply Policy Department. He says that since he started working in the sector, 25 years ago, Kampong Speu’s scarce water sources have consistently made it one of the two most challenging provinces in Cambodia when it comes to water supply.
Times have certainly changed. Mr. Kunthea and Mr. Sophat are sharing their memories twenty metres away from the newly constructed reservoir which Mr. Sophat owns, co-financed by UNICEF with technical support from the local NGO, Cambodian Water Supply Association. Work commenced on constructing the reservoir in 2021, and it is already supplying clean, safe, piped water to 21 villages in the local area.
It’s the latest step forward in a long journey by the Royal Government of Cambodia and its partners to improve water access across the country. In 1998, just 26.8% of urban households and 1.5% of rural households had access to piped water, according to the General Population Census. By 2019, those numbers had risen to 57.3% in urban areas and 18.5% in rural areas.
“Water is important because all life depends on it, whether humans, animals, plants or trees,” says Mr. Kunthea.
“When a family has easy access to a safe water supply, they will suffer from fewer diseases and infections. They will see improvements in their household economies. We’ve even seen that domestic violence is reduced when a family has access to water.”
That’s why the Royal Government, UNICEF, development partners and local NGOs have all worked together to improve the country’s water infrastructure and support the 340 businesses which have now been licensed to provide piped water across the country. The goal is to connect 90% of Cambodian households to running water supplies by 2030. UNICEF has provided technical support to the Government, business support to water suppliers, and helped to mobilise investment from the Government and generous external supporters, with the Japan Committee for UNICEF and the AEON 1% Club Foundation playing a crucial role.
There are multiple challenges to be overcome in the united effort to connect the remaining households. One is the rapid pace of Cambodia’s development, with new roads or housing developments sometimes inadvertently destroying pipes and cutting off water supplies. Mr. Kunthea’s team is working on legislation and regulations to reduce these problems in the future. But a bigger problem is that many poor families can’t afford even the low connection fees of between $50 and $70. UNICEF works with the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation (MSTI) and local NGO partners to provide subsidies to those families officially identified as poor.
One such family is headed up by Pao Klei, 67, and his wife Mak Tok, 61, along with their two working age sons. They are the kind of couple who have been together so long that they often finish each other’s sentences or speak them at the same time, like a chorus.
Until this year they had relied on a water delivery service which came to their small shack. Not only was this expensive – often costing more than $20 a month, a huge sum for the family – but it was unreliable, which could mean a 2 kilometre walk to collect water from a nearby pagoda if the delivery didn’t turn up. “Very difficult, especially when the boys were young,” remembers Mrs. Tok. “Yes, they were normal boys and loved to play outside and get dirty,” finishes Mr. Klei. “And not having water meant we couldn’t keep them clean!”
As perhaps the most disadvantaged family in their village, they were the last to get connected to piped water. Given that they had been identified as poor by the Royal Government of Cambodia, UNICEF worked with MSTI to subsidise their connection fee.
“Life is much easier now, fewer problems,” says Mrs. Mk. “Yes, easier,” continues Mr. Klei. “I’d say to all poor families that they should try and get connected if they can. It’s a hard life without water.”
Hong Tit is a neighbour who was also connected to water in the last year, with financial support from his parents. Access to water was a lifeline for him, since he lives with multiple disabilities following a motorbike accident that left him unable to work, economically struggling, and with limited mobility. “I sometimes had to go and collect the water from a long way away,” he says. “That was difficult."
Perhaps even more importantly, given his fragile health, he can now rely on the water being clean and safe. “Before the water was sometimes dirty and had insects in it. I always had to boil it. Now it’s healthy water, I don’t ever get infections. I could even drink it straight from the pipe if I wanted to.”
Mr. Sophat says that he loves to hear how happy people are to have running water for the first time and feels proud, though he knows he couldn’t have achieved it alone. “There are lots of partners involved in making a big project like this happen,” he says, then laughs. “So many I don’t always remember them all! But I am grateful to them all. And I am going to keep improving this reservoir and this facility. We’ve reached 21 villages in this area, but there are still 6 more I would like to reach. That’s what we’ll be working towards in the coming years. I want everyone to be able to access water.”