An ADB-supported water and sanitation project in Cambodia has freed rural women from the back-breaking work of hauling water and is restoring good health to communities.

Sras Keo Village, Cambodia - Lack of access to clean water has long plagued Thap Khon's family. The 56-year-old resident of Sangker District in Cambodia's northeastern province of Battambang used to walk twice a day to a small river more than 2 kilometers away to fetch water for her family. She had to stop several times along the way to rest from the backbreaking load of heavy water containers.

Her three children would often get diarrhea during the dry season when the river water was dirty. During those times, she would buy water from local vendors for about $1 per container, a crippling price for her small family budget.

Things have changed now. A small well has been built in the center of her community, just a few minutes' walk from her house. She can get water any time she needs it, and it is clean year-round. Her children no longer get waterborne illnesses.

"We don't worry about water anymore," she said. "We have clean water whenever we want it. Our community is cleaner and we have more time to spend with our families."

Before the well was built, children would often go to the river by themselves to play, sometimes getting sick or, worse, drowning. Now, the community children play at the well, which is safe, clean, and in the middle of the village. The Provincial Department of Rural Development has built more than 300 wells in Thap Khon's district.

Clean water at the doorstep

Thap Khon and her family benefited from the ADB-supported Tonle Sap Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project, supported by an $18 million grant from ADB's Asian Development Fund.

The project, completed in 2010, provided access to improved sources of drinking water to nearly half a million people, and access to hygienic household latrines to more than 45,000 rural families in the provinces of Battambang, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Thom, Pursat, and Siem Reap. It also included a detailed gender action plan with specific measures and targets to promote women's empowerment and ensure equitable benefits for women and men.

"Time-use surveys show that the burden of collecting and managing rural household water supply falls primarily on women and children," says Karin Schelzig, a senior social sector specialist based at ADB's Cambodia Resident Mission. "Better access to improved water and safe, convenient sanitation facilities has had a direct, positive impact on women living in the area."

Women surveyed during project preparation said they spent up to 3 hours per day collecting water from remote sources. Women also tend to be responsible for promoting hygiene and sanitation in their families, and for caring for family members when they are ill. Unsafe water, therefore, particularly disadvantages women.

Improved access to safe and reliable water and sanitation has resulted in time savings, a reduced burden of labor, and improved family health. Women in the project's 18 districts have benefited by having more time to spend on other productive activities. Better-quality water and access to improved sanitation has also reduced the prevalence and severity of water-related diseases in the project area, reducing the number of work or school days lost to poor health. Women with household latrines report feeling safer now that they no longer have to wait until nightfall to defecate out in the open, often far from their homes.

Improved sanitation

Trav Ly, a 38-year-old resident of the northern Cambodian village of Sras Keo, has felt the project's impact in her community. Previously, she and her son and four daughters defecated in the forest near their home, where they buried the waste.

"We were embarrassed to have to do that," she says. "And we were afraid of snakes and ghosts. We didn't feel safe."

She adds that some young women in the village felt harassed or thought they were being watched when they relieved themselves in the forests or rice fields. The practice would also make villagers sick. The prevalence of human waste so near the community spread bacteria.

Trav Ly's 12-year-old daughter Phan Phalla contracted dengue fever after being bitten by a mosquito while defecating in the forest. She developed a dangerously high fever. To pay the doctor that saved the child's life, the family had to sell their rice and food stocks. They struggled for months afterward to keep the family fed.

After the ADB-supported project brought latrines to the community, the change was dramatic. People became sick less often. With healthier children and fewer health expenditures, Trav Ly has invested in her children's schooling.

"The latrine has made my family healthier and has improved our lives," she says. "Our village also smells much better."