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Lack of adequate sanitation triggers child health concerns in Cambodia

© UNICEF Cambodia/2007/Rintala
In rural Cambodia, less than 16 per cent of the population has access to improved sanitation.

By Guy Degan

On 7 May, UNICEF hosts the first preparatory meeting for the International Year of Sanitation in 2008, declared by the UN General Assembly to address the global sanitation crisis. Here is a report on the situation in Cambodia.

SVAY RIENG PROVINCE, Cambodia, 4 May 2007 – Rice farmer Vorn Mao is looking forward to the rainy season to flood his family's dry and dusty rice paddies. But for him and his wife Roeung, water not only provides a livelihood. It also has been the cause of some anguish.

Together they look after seven grandchildren while the parents work in the capital, Phnom Penh. During a water shortage a little over a year ago, their five-year-old granddaughter Chenda died from drinking unsafe water.

The grandparents recall how Chenda had a high fever and diarrhoea, and died overnight at the district hospital. Her mother returned from Phnom Penh too late and did not see the girl before she died. 

Low coverage in rural areas

UNICEF estimates that only 16 per cent of rural Cambodians have access to adequate sanitation and 65 per cent to safe water. In urban areas the situation is much better, but some 80 per cent of Cambodians still live in the countryside.

“Water and sanitation has been identified as one of the major causes of the high diarrhoea incidence in Cambodia,” says UNICEF Cambodia Project Officer Hilda Winarta. “In particular, the sanitation situation is very poor. Cambodia has in fact been classified as one of the countries in the world with the lowest sanitation coverage in the rural areas.”

Many rural households lack basic sanitation facilities, and awareness of good hygiene practices is limited. There is often no toilet nor any soap for washing hands at home or in school. Children are more likely than adults to touch unclean surfaces and are therefore particularly vulnerable to unhealthy environments.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2007/Rintala
Poor sanitation contributes to high diarrhoea incidence among children in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng Province.

Improved services and hygiene

Working with local communities to improve access to safe water and sanitation is one of the cornerstones of UNICEF Cambodia's child rights programme – known as ‘Seth Koma’ in the Khmer language. Providing local commune councils with technical assistance and expertise in water and sanitation is a major part of the project.

UNICEF’s aim is twofold: to encourage communities to allocate funding towards water and sanitation services, and to improve their hygiene practices.

At Phoum Thom village a recently built well is now providing 10 families with water for drinking, cooking and washing. An information board beside the well clearly explains what good hygiene is.

“Before, there was no clean water in the commune,” says Khorn Sa Ung, a local council member. “People fetched water from different sources – sometimes from the river, sometimes from the ponds in nearby pagodas – and this water is not clean.”

Water and sanitation access

At the nearby Thlork Primary School, water from a UNICEF-funded well not only provides safe water for drinking but also keeps the school's latrines clean and hygienic. Research indicates that schools with wells and latrines help to keep more children in primary schools, particularly girls.

As a young child, student Rina Phan, now 12, suffered from diarrhoea and typhoid as a result of drinking unsafe water at home. “I think it's important to have clean water, good personal hygiene and good health,” she says.

In the past year, UNICEF has implemented its Seth Koma project in six rural provinces. By improving water and sanitation access and hygiene, the project is helping Cambodians avert the preventable deaths of thousands of young children from diarrhoea and water-borne diseases.




UNICEF correspondent Guy Degen reports on the health crises faced by many in Cambodia due to poor sanitation.
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