Easing the Burden of Water in Rural Cambodia

Article | 27 July 2010

A community pond in rural Cambodia has made clean water accessible, staving off illness, and allowing women to work and children to attend school.

Tek La-Ak, Cambodia - Hong Yoeun's hands are covered with calluses; the unforgiving plastic handles of the water buckets have seen to that. Until now, she had never in her 35 years lived in a place with running water. Trudging to and from the nearest source has been part of the daily grind for as long as she can remember.

But now - for Hong Yoeun, at least - getting clean water is much easier. A large, rectangular pit that fills with rainwater has appeared in the middle of Tek La-ak, the leafy village in the Kampong Chhnang province she calls home.

Before the community pond, Hong Yoeun, with two of her four children trailing behind her, would hike to the nearest source, then lug the dripping pails back to the house. Hong Yoeun often had to repeat her trip three times a day.

There is nothing unusual about her plight. Around half of the people living in rural Cambodia have little access to clean water, let alone at their homes. With more than four fifths of the population living in the countryside, millions of Cambodians face a daily struggle to get a vital resource that comes as easily as a twist of the tap to people in developed countries.

The impact on family life can be considerable. Just going to get water can take hours out of every day. It may take parents away from their families and children out of school.

Tek La-ak's new community pond may seem unprepossessing - and the water it contains may look a dismal, murky yellow-brown - but it has transformed the lives of everyone here.

Within easy walking distance of everyone in the community, the pond and pump seem to have become the focal point of the village. Young children laugh as they douse themselves and each other. Women scrub clothes in metal bowls full of water and suds. Buckets are lined up next to the pipes, ready to be filled and carried back home.

For Hong Yoeun, it is hard to overstate the benefits the new water supply has brought her family.

"In the past, I had to go a long way to get water three times a day," she explains, as she sits on the edge of the pumping platform. "I would get home and it would already be dark, but I would still have to make rice for the children. Now we have the pond nearby, and I can feel more relaxed. I've actually got time to do other things."

Cambodia has developed remarkably quickly since the return of peace just over a decade ago. Economic growth has hit double digits in many years and infrastructure in urban centers has improved markedly. Citizens of Phnom Penh enjoy some of Southeast Asia's cleaner water mains.

But the dearth of accessibly clean water in rural areas has been a major drag on progress. The time spent toting buckets is costly to the economy, as are the illnesses caused by drinking contaminated supplies. One study suggested that the lack of clean water and sanitation cost Cambodia the equivalent of 7% of its gross domestic product every year.

Children pay a particularly heavy price. Around 20 die every day in Cambodia because of diarrhea, a condition directly related to dirty water and poor sanitation.

Improving rural water supplies is one of the government's steps to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and part of its "rectangular strategy" for development. Partners, including ADB, are helping to turn the words into reality.

Behind grand project names, the benefits of spending a little money on practical solutions - like the Tek La-ak pond and filter system - are clear: Local residents report that they have already seen a dramatic fall in the number of illnesses among the community.

"Now the filter is here, people's lives will be improved. And because the pond is right next to their houses, it is very convenient," says the Minister for Rural Development Chea Sophara as he looks across the pond. "Children used to get to school late because they had to get water; now they can get to school on time. If we can provide access to sanitation, then we will reduce sickness and medical bills, and improve people's livelihoods."