Cambodia/2014/Anne-Sophie Galli |
School director Sun Sihorn (left) sings the arsenic song every morning with her students and teachers.
KAMPONG CHAM, Cambodia, 29 July 2014 – For most Cambodians, drinking water carries many risks. Their water contains bacteria, parasites or arsenic. Sun Sihorn was 17 when she suffered from the risks of unsafe water, fell ill with a high fever and thought she would die. That was in the late 1970s, when Cambodia was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. “We were forced to work on rice fields all day long”, she says. “There, we drank water directly from ponds and had no time to boil it.” Today, Sun Sihorn is 53 and she is using her near-death experience to teach others about water-related diseases. In Cambodia, diarrhoea is still the second biggest cause of death for children under 5 years old. Most of these deaths can be prevented by drinking treated bottled water or by boiling or filtering water from ponds, rivers, or groundwater wells themselves, to kill bacteria. “Many know about boiling but they think it’s not important or it takes too much time”, says Sun Sihorn.
“Arsenic is invisible like a ghost”
Sun Sihorn is now a primary school director of Kaoh Kul Primary School in Kampong Cham province. Two years ago, she attended a workshop on safe water for school teachers and school directors organised by the Provincial Department of Rural Development with support from UNICEF and funding from the Aeon 1% Club through the Japan Committee for UNICEF. At the workshop, Sun Sihorn not only learned how to teach children about the risks of drinking unsafe water but she also discovered that water can also contain something she had never heard of before: arsenic. This invisible, colourless and tasteless poison naturally occurs in certain areas of Cambodia’s groundwater, affecting 2.25 million people. Drinking arsenic in large quantities and over the course of many years can cause health problems such as skin lesions, changes in skin pigmentation and cancer of skin, lungs, kidneys and bladder which may lead to amputations or death.
|© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Anne-Sophie Galli|
Student Va Liza learned at school that boiling non arsenic contaminated water is essential to kill bacteria. “Now I know how not to have diarrhea all the time any more”.
Since arsenic cannot be removed by boiling water, Sun Sihorn and the other workshop participants came to know that arsenic mitigation relies solely on awareness and the use of alternative safe water sources. The Ministry of Rural Development, with UNICEF support, regularly tests tube well water in arsenic-affected areas and marks those containing arsenic with red paint, while safe wells are painted green. Water from red wells can be used for cleaning but not for cooking or drinking. To help school teachers and directors build awareness among students, the ministry staff taught them a memorable song that they could use to highlight the dangers of unsafe water and arsenic. It is a song that Sun Sihorn leads her pupils to sing every morning before class begins, with a chorus that cautions, “Arsenic is invisible like a ghost…you should not drink from red wells but instead from green ones.”
Va Liza, a 14 year old student at Sun Sihorn’s school says, “I love singing the song with my friends.” Liza also sings it at home and this encouraged her parents to boil the water they get from a safe well. “Now I know how not to have diarrhoea all the time anymore,” says Liza who had to repeat one grade because she was often absent due to illness. Now her marks have improved. If children are often sick, they cannot absorb nutrients adequately which can lead to malnutrition and poor brain development. They are also more likely to drop out of school. “My students understand the message of the song and are a lot healthier now”, says Sun Sihorn with a big smile. She makes sure that all her students know the song by heart. She also uses posters provided by the Provincial Department of Rural Department with support from UNICEF, to illustrate where to get safe water.
Making a difference in students’ lives
The Cambodian government and UNICEF are working together with teachers and school directors to raise awareness and persuade more Cambodians to drink safe water. So far, 250 school officials have learnt how to teach about the risks of unsafe water with songs and other methods.
To make sure students have clean water in school, UNICEF has provided 30 rainwater harvesting tanks to primary schools in arsenic affected areas since 2011. Sun Sihorn’s school is one of them. To ensure that the water is safe to drink, she always boils the water and puts it in a clean water dispenser from which her students can fill their water bottles. “I’m happy I can make a difference in my student’s lives”, she says and adds: “I hope they will always remember it and that the song will be sung even after I’m gone.”