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Sharing perspectives on arsenic in drinking water from around the Greater Mekong

© UNICEF Cambodia/ Bona Khoy
Experts are sharing ideas in the meeting.

By Johanna Laurila

August 2008, Cambodia - Dozens of experts from development agencies and government ministries gathered in Phnom Penh in August 2008 to discuss recent regional efforts related to arsenic in drinking water. The participants heard the preliminary findings of an evaluation on arsenic mitigation in the Greater Mekong region: Cambodia, Lao PRD, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Groundwater in some areas of South East Asia, including the Mekong flood plains, is naturally contaminated with arsenic. Unsafe levels of arsenic in drinking water can result in adverse health impacts including arsenicosis and various cancers. Water and sanitation programmes in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam have been addressing this problem for several years.

The evaluation, supported by AusAID and UNICEF, was based on desk reviews and country visits over the course of six weeks.  The two consultants used this opportunity to present their findings and recommendations which inspired eager exchanges among the participants in the de-briefing.

“It is useful to have an idea on the preliminary findings of the evaluation, and actually to allow an opportunity for people to comment on and to be even more accurate with the end result”, says Peter Lindenmayer, First Secretary from AusAID. “People can return to their countries with better understanding of the opportunities there might be to improve the quality of water.”

The workshop brought together representatives from UNICEF country offices, other UN agencies, the Cambodian Government and NGOs. There have been too few opportunities to share perspectives across countries, a gap noted by participants.

“I certainly find this event important, to come together and examine the problem of arsenic and collectively put our minds together and brainstorm about different aspects of it”, said Andrew Shantz from the NGO Resource Development International Cambodia.

One point which generated lively discussion was the presentation on financial comparisons and unit costs. For instance, there are several ways to capture the costs of arsenic mitigation activities but these have not been done uniformly by the countries.  The need for better tracking of arsenic mitigation programme costs, which in turn will assist with resources mobilization, was debated.

© UNICEF Cambodia

Community education raises awareness

There are a lot of challenges to successfully tackling the arsenic problem. One of these is to ensure that communities in areas at-risk for arsenic in groundwater learn about the dangers and how to avoid them.  Well water is tested by government teams equipped with portable water quality test kits.  Some samples are sent to central laboratories for confirmation. These results determine whether water from a particular well is below the government standard for arsenic or whether it exceeds it and is therefore unsafe for drinking, but can still be used for bathing and other purposes.  To make it clear to users, pumps are commonly marked with green paint (safe) or red paint (unsafe).  Otherwise it would be impossible for villagers to know since arsenic is colourless and odorless.  The symptoms of arsenicosis usually manifest themselves only after about 5-10 years of cumulative exposure to arsenic.

Since 2003 UNICEF has been working with the Cambodian Ministry of Rural Development to identify high-risk zones of arsenic contamination. This has included well testing, mapping and information management.  Just as in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam, the urgent focus now turns to providing alternative arsenic-free water supply facilities

The regional arsenic mitigation evaluation examined four key areas: testing and database, community education and awareness, alternative safe water sources and policy, strategy and finance. The final evaluation report, due out in September, will highlight good practices applicable across the region.

National strategies are key

© UNICEF Cambodia

Cambodia, the hosts of the meeting, is proud of their National Arsenic Strategic Action Plan (2007– 2012) which is the first in the region. The National Plan was compiled by Government officials in consultation with other stakeholders.

“The collaboration in Cambodia, with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Rural Development has been successful. I’m also happy to notify that the prevention measures regarding health impact are considered now more and more seriously – they have been known of for years”, Dr. Prak Piseth Raingsey, the Director of the Department in the Ministry of Health pointed out.

When asked, Dr. Chea Samnang, Director of Department in the Ministry of Rural Development in Cambodia, also chose the National Strategy as a key area: “The potential in how each country can learn on useful strategy in terms of fund mobilization, advocacy for political and decision makers support, and awareness raising at community level is still limited. In my opinion, to develop a strategy on time is not important, but how this strategy can be put in place for effective implementation.”

Out of the multitude of examples and topics brought up during the evaluation de-briefing, Myanmar was mentioned as having a well-functioning database on arsenic. Lao PDR had important lessons to share on the importance of raising community awareness without instilling fear.  People should understand that arsenic contaminated water can be still be used for bathing and washing clothes and vegetables. Vietnam contributed lessons on using a website to disseminate e-library materials on arsenic, with potential to expand to other regions.

Building on past experience

Bangladesh has much longer experience with addressing arsenic issues – large-scale action has taken place for a decade. Richard Johnston, Water and Sanitation Specialist from UNICEF Bangladesh, said that it’s useful to meet people and finally put names to the e-mails.
“I was impressed by the amount of activities that was going on here. For me personally it is useful to learn what’s happening in this side of the world. Obviously in Bangladesh we have much closer links to India and to South Asia”, Johnston said.

“Also there were some new things I’ll take home with me, some new twists. We’re all facing the same issue but every country approaches it a little bit differently and there are always some strengths other countries may have. For instance I’m happy to learn more about the Myanmar’s database experience.”

Dr. Samnang shared his appreciation for the evaluation team, conducted by two consultants, Md. Jakariya and Simon Deeble.

 “The evaluation team has done a great job, and all information is useful for each country. It is the first time that four countries with arsenic problem meet and get familiar with the progress and efforts of each other. I think network collaboration between these four countries should be established and make it functioning for sharing experiences to each other.”


For further information, please contact

Johanna Laurila, UNICEF Cambodia
Telephone:       (855 23) 426 214/5 (Ext.209)
Facsimile:         (855 23) 426 284           
Mobile:             (855 12) 300 974



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