Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fulfilling the demand for safe drinking water in rural arsenic-affected areas


Houg Socheat with his grandmother Houv Kim Chroeu.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid
Just 80 metres from the Tunle Touch River in Preak Changkran village, the continuous noise of running water can be heard coming from a bright blue building, positioned between a primary school and a pagoda in Prey Veng province.  This building, centrally located in the village, is the new solar-powered community water treatment and bottling system, that purifies water from the nearby Tunle Touch river, seals the safe drinking water into 10 and 20-litre bottles and distributes them to households and schools in Preak Changkran commune.
“I used to have diarrhoea two to three times per week,” said 11-year-old Houg Socheat, from Preak Changkran village, as he stands outside the water treatment system, holding his empty 20-litre bottle, waiting for it to be refilled and delivered to his home.

Socheat who looks underweight for his age, recalled how his bouts of diarrhoea affected his school attendance, “Every time I was ill, I was absent from school for two to three days but since we’ve been buying the water from here [community water treatment and bottling system], I haven’t been ill.”

Socheat and his 74-year-old grandmother, Houv Kim Chroeu, have been able to enjoy the convenience of safe drinking water, delivered directly to their home, since February of this year. The water treatment system, which is managed by the community, is part of a programme to increase access to safe water in arsenic-affected villages, through the promotion of household water treatment and safe storage and the provision to schools of free access to safe drinking water.  The programme is funded by the Luxembourg Committee for UNICEF, with support from UNICEF Cambodia and in partnership with the Cambodian non-governmental organization Teuk Saat 1001. It benefits some 7, 735 people in Preak Changkran commune, including at least 3,098 children under the age of 18.

Saving lives
Safe drinking water is in high demand in most villages in Prey Veng province. The province in south–eastern Cambodia is along the Vietnamese border where many areas are highly affected by arsenic.  Fifty per cent of rural households get their water from sources that can easily become contaminated and is unfit for drinking. Water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea account for almost one fifth of deaths of children under the age of 5 in Cambodia, and only a quarter of Cambodians have access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, particularly among children, can result in malnutrition and even death. Access to safe water and environmental sanitation is crucial to reduce the risk of child deaths and existing levels of child morbidity and malnutrition.
Community head, Mr Chea Yi at the community water treatment and bottling system.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid
At the community water treatment system in Preak Changkran village, two permanent members of staff work there daily and three elected community elders facilitate the operation and monitor the status of the water. The system and bottling plant provide employment opportunities for both women and men, in addition to spin-off employment related to household delivery. One hundred bottles are filled and delivered to households once or twice per day. On average, each household purchases two to three bottles per week during the rainy season with consumption increasing during the dry season. One bottle costs 1,300 riel (US$0.27) if delivered to their home and 1, 500 riel (US$0.35) if delivered to a location outside of the commune.

Raising awareness

Socheat’s mother, 35-year-old Siean Sothy, moved to Phnom Penh in February and works in a garment factory. Before leaving the village, she attended an educational session conducted by Teuk Saat 1001 to educate villagers about safe water and promote good hygiene and sanitation practices. These three-hour sessions were held in all five villages in Preak Changkran commune at the home of the village chief or in a centrally located pagoda. On average 30-40 residents, mostly of women, from each household attended the sessions where they learnt about water sources, water cycles, diseases, safe water, hygiene and sanitation, hand washing and the costs associated with drinking unsafe water.

Following the session, Sothy shared the information with her mother, Houv Kim Chroeu and encouraged her to purchase the bottled water from Teuk Saat 1001. In her commitment to improve her family’s health, Sothy sends US$50 every month to her mother for living expenses including the bottled water.

Community coordinator, Mr. Chhat Sopim said, “It became apparent to us during the sessions that the residents were not aware that their skin lesions were related to them drinking arsenic –affected water. In addition, they were shocked to discover the amount that they had spent on medication to treat their illnesses, which could have been prevented. At the end of the session, we introduced the villagers to the bottled water and collected the names and addresses of those who were interested in having the water delivered to their homes.”

Water for schools

In Cambodia about 40 per cent of primary schools do not have safe drinking water. Under the community water treatment system, the school programme provides free water to school children in all four primary schools in Preak Changkran commune, including the one Socheat attends.
Socheat drinks free and safe water at Preak Changkran Primary School.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid
“When I drink this water I have good health,” said Socheat. “Before drinking this water I used to bring my own water (from the water pump)  to school. I would often get sick with diarrohea, pains in my stomach, and a headache. At the time I didn’t know why I was getting diarrohea. But I now I understand why it’s important to drink clean water.”

Socheat’s school, Preak Changkran Primary School, receives three 10–litre bottles every day to serve its three classrooms. Having access to clean water ensures that the students are hydrated and only drink safe water during school hours, thereby reducing the amount of days lost from being absent due to contracting water-borne diseases.
Operations Manager, Mr. Van (right), outside the water treatment system.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid
In 2012, UNICEF committed to support the building of 20 community water treatment and bottling systems in 20 communes in Kandal and Prey Veng provinces. Eight systems were built in Prey Veng thanks to funding from the Luxembourg Committee for UNICEF. This innovative system not only provides children and their families with safe, clean drinking water but is also providing households in communities with economic opportunities and livelihoods.

By Angelique Reid

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