Cambodia needs more than wells to achieve universal clean water access


UNICEF reports that 6 million Cambodians do not have access to safe, clean, drinkable water.  The problem is not just lack of wells.

The latest drought across Cambodia has shone the spotlight on the need for clean fresh water.  State initiatives to bring clean bottled water to drought-stricken villages has been useful, but only for the short term. What every Cambodian needs is steady, reliable access to clean fresh water. A recent UNICEF report, dated 2014, calculated that 6.3 million out of Cambodia’s 14.9 million population lacked access to clean drinking water. The problem is, in particular, a rural problem (80% of Phnom Penh’s population has access to clean drinking water,) and the main reason for the problem – the report stated – was that the Government has simply made other developments a higher priority. New roads have higher priority than access to water.

  • Some 40 percent of primary schools and 35 percent of health centers in the country do not have access to safe water and sanitation.
  • The lack of access to clean water leaves Cambodian children vulnerable to diseases such as diarrhea, which is the second leading cause of death among children under five, according to UNICEF.
  • According to WaterAid at least 380 children die each year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Since 2014, according to international aid agency WaterAid there is now a national strategy, outlined by the Government, of reaching universal access to clean water by 2025: an objective that will not only play catch-up with the 6 million who lack adequate water supplies today, but will need to also reach the expanding population projected to reach at least 17.5 million by 2025.  Can they achieve this?

The digging of wells is the main solution in the rural villages though for the cities the provision of mains supply water is the main emphasis: treating lake, river sourced or well-sourced waters with full filtration systems as well as chemical treatment such as flouridation or chlorination.

Compounding the problem is the presence of two hazards in the ground and surface waters usually drawn upon by villages.  One hazard is naturally occurring arsenic: an issue that affects the whole Mekong delta region.  On this front Cambodia’s official ‘acceptable’ limit is 50 parts per million – in contrast to 30ppm in most Western countries.

An even more significant hazard is the presence of TTCs (thermo-tolerant coliform bacteria). For these bacteria, water treatment is needed.

Today in the face of drought, now and in the future, the provision of wells is a laudable initiative, and their are many agencies engaged with this – and worth supporting. My friend Savong has helped many well-building projects in rural Siem Reap.

But Cambodia also needs more reservoirs to effectively store water gathered during peak rainy periods and create a top-up for groundwater which, many experts believe, is sinking significantly.

The more wells or holes dug into the groundwater, the more pressure it loses causing well water levels to drop. That’s according to Mekong River Commission technical adviser Ian Thomas as reported in the Phnom Penh Post, last March 4th. A February Stanford University study found the more wells Cambodians dig, the harder it will be to extract water.

The building of reservoirs, (Angkor’s  East and West Baray are good examples from 1,000 years ago,)  would provide greater eco-stability for farming, fishing, and general water supply.

But for now, reservoirs and wells are just the start. Treating the water is also necessary. Water filters are a big part of the story. If you are supporting a water project, ask about the need for water filtration and treatment.

  • Sixty dollars will by a good basic bio-sand filter via Water for Cambodia.
  • Or Ceramic Filters, (they look like clay pots,) which are also recommended, are available through Resource Development International – who also supply water testing kits if you are worried about arsenic levels.

Further reading in this blog:

For more on the politics of water in Cambodia Who owns the Mekong? The intricate politics of water.

Also about the 2016 Drought

For other Facts and Figures about Cambodia




Drought Conditions hit Cambodia


In dealing with Cambodia since 2004 I’ve witnessed some extreme weather – notably flooding during monsoon season when roads, and our school grounds, turned briefly into lakes.  But in 12 years I’ve never seen anything as extreme, climate-wise, as the current drought which has taken parts of Cambodia to an emergency situation.

The drought is affecting Vietnam, Thailand and India also and has signs of turning into one of greatest weather-induced catastrophes of our times. Cambodia authorities declared drought conditions on March 29th, and since then 7 weeks have passed by with scant rain and scorching 40 degree temperatures.

Areas as disparate as Battambang in the west to Kandal Province, just South of Phnom Penh, where lakes and small rivers have dried up, to Stung Treng Province in the North, bordering Laos, have suffered.  Effects of the drought have included:

  • More than 300 farming buffalo have died
  • Tonnes of fish are dying in rivers and lakes – more than 60 tonnes of fish in the last week of April
  • Ground-water levels at unusually low levels after three relatively dry years
  • Wells drying up – an estimated 2.5 million people facing acute water shortages
  • Regions where schools are closing due to lack of water
  • Rising risk of disease due to increasingly poor water quality – including risks of cholera.

What is causing the drought? Meteorological conditions, namely a large El Nino weather system are directly to blame, but compounding the problem have been extremely poor environmental choices throughout S.E Asia including Cambodia. Massive losses of forestry have hurt normal rainfall patterns while dams have altered the normal aquatic patterns affecting fish life.

I’ve noted in previous blogs that Cambodia is particularly vulnerable to disasters – not just because of the disasters themselves, but also due to the poor disaster relief infrastructure. Farmers are currently losing everything – their crops, their animals and their meagre cash reserves, while there is little or no official welfare system established to assist them. According to the Guardian newspaper, some 19 provinces have been classified as in a serious condition requiring “immediate intervention” from the government which claims that “ministries, military units, NGOs, and everyone capable of helping” have been asked to step up. There has been publicity around delivery of bottled water to drought-hit villages, but little in the way of long-term solutions. And so far authorities have held off on making an appeal for international aid.

Right now everyone is praying for rain. May is supposed to be the commencement of the 3-month rainy season during which 75% of the annual rainfall normally occurs, but according to the Xin Hua news service the present conditions are forecast to last at least until July.

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