Landing in Phnom Penh on an early midweek morning last October, I was greeted by bustling business goers starting their day. Once a riverside village along the Tonle Sap, it’s hard to miss the signs of development Cambodia’s capital has seen in recent years as scaffolding scatter across an increasingly tall skyline - though the gentle hum of boats on the river still offers a welcome backdrop to the city’s buzz.
Despite the capital’s rapid urbanization, 76 per cent of Cambodia’s population remains dispersed across a rural landscape, evidenced by lesser paved roads an hour into the drive to Odongk district, Kampong Speu. Here, at the district’s main reservoir, is where I began my first field visit with UNICEF.
Overlooking the large water pools that collect seasonal rainfall, we spoke to the water operator whose facility supplies water to 21 of the surrounding villages. He explained that, prior to this, households in those villages were dependent on water deliveries that were unreliable often resulting in villagers having to walk up to a 2 kilometres to collect water from local wells and pagodas. We made our way to one of the villages and heard for ourselves the experiences of families who recounted the horse and cart deliveries they relied on just 20 years ago.
For households identified as poor by the government, UNICEF supported them by subsidizing the cost of installing connectors and taps to ensure they had access to clean running water right to their doorsteps. I was taken aback to learn how much of a financial burden was lifted through this initiative. Families that once paid over USD$20 per month for water deliveries now receive a month’s supply of water for as little as USD$2.5. We spoke to proud grandparents, watching over their five-day old granddaughter, who smiled with relief as they described how children in the village are now at much lower risk of skin diseases and infection from the cleaner water supply.
On the other hand, this mission really drove home what it means to say that those least responsible are among the worst affected by the impacts of climate change. On the backdrop of this urgency to reach more families with safe and affordable water are the emerging signs of a changing climate. Droughts have previously resulted in a water supply shortage, often exaggerated by higher demand for water during hotter seasons. These increasingly unpredictable weather patterns pose an imminent threat to households that only recently shifted away from unreliable water supplies and costly deliveries.
What started as a trip to understand how UNICEF is supporting the scale-up of water access in rural parts of Cambodia, I returned with so much more. Though I was briefed on Cambodia’s goal to reach 90 per cent of households with access to clean running water by 2030 prior to the visit, little compares to meeting and speaking to the people working every day to make this happen.
This mission also put into perspective the urgent yet incredibly complex reality that developing countries, like Cambodia, face in reaching its population with critical services while planning for a changing climate. In a world of increasingly constrained resources, it has never been more important to redefine our pursuit of prosperity to ensure that we are not pulling at the seams of critical development in areas that are working to fulfill every child’s right to basic services, like water, sanitation, and hygiene.
Ariela Ann Mcdonald is a Communications UNV at UNICEF EAPRO