World Water Day: Saving lives, creating jobs in Cambodia

The theme for today’s World Water Day is Better water, better jobs, focusing on how safe water can change workers’ lives and livelihoods – and even transform societies and economies. UNICEF works throughout the region to not only help bring safe, clean water to communities and schools but to also help transform livelihoods.

In arsenic-affected Kandal commune in Cambodia, it has taken many years to get communities to understand the risks of drinking contaminated well water and find safe alternatives. However thanks to UNICEF support, accessing clean water is now possible for thousands of people, and for some it has created new career opportunities.

Most adults in the villages in this area work in the nearby garment factories throughout the day or do construction work. For Kem, who was previously an assistant to truck drivers, things are really looking up now. He now works at the new treatment plant, cleaning and delivering water. “I like what I’m doing now, I can learn new skills,” he says.

“I like what I’m doing now, I can learn new skills,” says Kem.

The water treatment system in Voa Sar commune was built in 2013 by Tuek Saat 1001 with support from UNICEF. Teuk Saat 1001 is a local NGO dedicated to providing clean and safe water in rural communities by supporting communes to set up safe water businesses. Because Tuek Saat 1001’s water businesses are run by members of the community, they are sustainable and provide a source of income for the community.

The first of its kind in the area, the Voa Sar water treatment facility supplies clean and safe drinking water to people in the community at a low price. The water is three times cheaper than the going market price and schools receive water free of charge.

Kem dropped out of school when he was in Grade 9 but his limited educational opportunities have not curbed his ambition. By working for the water treatment plant, Kem has learned marketing, financial, communication and organizational skills.

Safe and afforable

Most pumping wells in the commune are arsenic-affected and authority marked them read to warn villagers not to use them
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/ MaesWells contaminated by arsenic are painted red. Thanks to UNICEF support, a new water system brings clean water to homes.

Another nearby village has also benefited from a similar UNICEF-supported scheme. UNICEF and partners supported the construction of a community piped water system to supply clean water to 2,000 families in Kampong Kong commune. The system pumps water from the river, and stores, treats, and distributes it to villagers through pipes across the commune.

Spearheading these efforts for more than 10 years is 63-year-old Commune Chief, Teagn Heang. Heang says that over the years explaining the risks of drinking arsenic-affected water was easy but suggesting alternatives was a tough job. “Most of the commune’s 400 wells contain arsenic and the only other choice was a nearby river, which I think there are bacteria or parasites,” he said.

“It is invisible with no taste, colour or smell,” Heang said. “There is real evidence of death and sickness. People feel scared and stop using water from the affected wells.”

Heang no longer has a hard time suggesting alternatives to arsenic-affected wells and the dirty river. ”It is the community-piped water system; it is clean, safe and affordable!” he said.

Sustainable future

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and particularly Goal 6 on water and sanitation, highlights the importance of safe water well beyond the traditional focus on homes and communities. Access to safe water and sanitation facilities is important in the home, schools and healthcare facilities, but it also has profound impacts on where, and sometimes how, people work. It has a profound impact on the quality of life.

Sanitation and hygiene remain challenges in the East Asia and Pacific region. Many countries did not meet the Millennium Development Goal sanitation target and open defecation rates remain high. These are directly linked to high maternal and child malnutrition rates, with eight countries in the region reporting stunting rates at over 30 per cent.

Much has been achieved but there is still much more to be done to ensure everyone achieves the basic right of access to safe water. With continued support and with the enthusiasm and ambition of people like Kem in Cambodia, the SDG target for water and sanitation can be achieved.

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