Wednesday, September 9, 2015

From river water to safe drinking water

By Jeremiah Rogers

Touch Bunthorn and his wife at their home in Preaek Koy Commune, Kampong Cham Province
© Lien Aid/2015

“My grandsons no longer wake up in the mornings with stomach pain. The treated water has improved my whole family’s health.” Life has changed for Touch Bunthorn since a UNICEF-supported community water treatment plant opened in his village in November 2014. Previously Bunthorn had relied upon boiling river water to provide drinking water for his family of ten.

Bunthorn lives in a traditional elevated house along the banks of the Mekong River in Preaek Koy Commune, Kampong Cham Province. He and his family, vegetable merchants at a nearby market, sit around an old wooden table to tell their story. Bunthorn’s family and others in his commune had boiled river water for decades. His family would spend up to six hours every week gathering wood from the surrounding forest for fuel. Bunthorn is pleased that this burden has now been removed. “We save time now because we don’t have to gather wood to boil water,” he explains. “My family can use that time to work, study or relax instead.”

Bunthorn’s family purchase around ten bottles of treated water per month from the community water treatment plant. At 1,000 Cambodian Riel (approximately $0.25), a 20 litre bottle of water from the plant costs one quarter of that sold in the local market.

Bunthorn is delighted that the stomach aches suffered by his grandsons, six-year-old twins Lun Heng and Ly Meng, have disappeared. He told me that before drinking treated water, they would regularly wake up complaining of stomach aches. Now his family have a water supply they can trust. “I prefer the taste and colour of the treated water and that it’s consistently the same quality. I also like that I can go to the treatment plant at any time. Some other people here sell water but I never know how they treat it. In this community I can take a look for myself.”

6-year-old twin brothers Lun Heng and Ly Meng, at their home in Preaek Koy Commune, Kampong Cham Province
© Lien Aid/2015

Preaek Koy Commune was selected for the project as a result of an in-depth assessment, which identified that the area is prone to flooding – which can contaminate water sources. The groundwater is also contaminated with arsenic, an invisible poison with no taste, colour or smell. If consumed in large quantities and over the course of many years, arsenic can cause irreversible health problems including skin lesions and cancer. It was clear that a clean water supply was urgently required. UNICEF, working with partner NGO Lien Aid, provided a water treatment system to the community. The system pumps raw water – such as from a river or lake – through a series of filters and finally a UV (ultra-violet light) treatment system, until it is fully treated and ready to drink.

Hav Lay is the person tasked with producing this clean water for the community. As Preaek Koy Commune’s community water entrepreneur he runs the water treatment plant, working in partnership with the commune council who own the facility. Lay is responsible for maintaining the water treatment system and for on-site water testing. He pays a monthly fee to the commune council, which is used for maintenance and to send water samples to a laboratory for rigorous testing. Both Lay and members of the council are trained in maintenance of the system and water testing methods.

Hav Lay, community water entrepreneur in Preaek Koy Commune, Kampong Cham Province
© Lien Aid/2015

Lay told us that upon opening the plant in November he sold only 300 bottles a month. However over the past five months his sales have dramatically increased to almost 2,000 bottles every month. This has had a great impact on his livelihood. “I’m thankful for this job because it gives me a much more predictable income supply than I had before.” Lay also has new ideas for expanding the business and reaching more people in the community with affordable safe drinking water. “I’m hoping that in the future I can get a trailer so that we can deliver water directly to houses.”

Jeremiah Rogers works for Lien Aid, a UNICEF partner

Additional writing by Sam Waller


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