Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Safe water for families thanks to community water treatment

By Jeremiah Rogers

Chorn Sina and her husband with safe drinking water in their home in Paknam village, Kampong Cham
© Lien Aid/2015

Chorn Sina and her husband are tobacco farmers in Paknam village, a rural community of just over 1,000 families along Touch River in Kampong Cham Province. They live in a simple wooden house with their 10-year-old daughter.

The area in which the family lives is prone to flooding, which can contaminate water sources. The groundwater is also contaminated with arsenic, a tasteless poison that can cause irreversible health problems. Sina and her husband used to gather firewood regularly from a nearby forest, to boil their water in an effort to make it safe to drink. “Gathering wood to boil water took us several hours every week,” explains Sina, “and we spent less time working on our farm and with our family.” Now, Sina and her family have easy access to affordable clean water.

In November 2014, a UNICEF-supported community water treatment plant opened in Paknam village. The system pumps raw water – such as from a river or lake – through a series of filters until it is fully treated and ready to drink. Sina buys four to five bottles of treated water per week, at a cost of 1,000 Cambodian Riel (approximately US$0.25) for 20 litres. “It’s worth the time savings to buy water instead of boiling water and we tell our friends to do the same,” Sina says.

Sina and her husband dry tobacco leaves at the base of their traditional elevated house. Sitting on the open slat floor, a cool breeze moves air through the building keeping it comfortable in the baking heat. Paknam village is entirely composed of houses like this, with a small dirt road running the length of the community.

In the upcoming harvest season Sina plans to buy even more water – up to one bottle every day – so that she can provide it to people who help them harvest tobacco. Sina also tells her friends and family that the water makes her feel healthier than boiled river or well water. “We like that we can inspect the water treatment plant at any time. It makes us feel confident that what we buy is not just untreated well water.”

Community water entrepreneur Si Mean at the UNICEF-supported water treatment plant in Paknam village
© Lien Aid/2015

Inside the community water treatment plant works Si Mean, Paknam’s community water entrepreneur. Covered under a pink plastic sheet are dozens of 20-litre bottles, filled with water that has just been treated. The treatment system begins with two large tanks where a series of filters remove large pieces of dirt and excess iron to ensure the water will have a good taste. The water is then pumped through a UV (ultra-violet light) treatment system which takes out tiny particles of dirt and kills bacteria. The water is then completely treated and safe to drink.

Mean is responsible for maintaining the water treatment system and for on-site water testing. She pays a monthly fee to the commune council – which owns the facility – for maintenance and to send water samples to a laboratory in Phnom Penh for rigorous testing. Both Mean and members of the council are trained in maintenance of the system and water testing methods.

Si Mean shows her daily records of bottle sales
© Lien Aid/2015

Mean keeps detailed handwritten notes on bottle sales every day. Over the past three weeks, she has sold an average of 71 bottles of treated water per day and generated about $525 in revenue. Like many people in the village, Mean was a tobacco farmer before taking her new role. “We sell about 2,100 bottles every month,” she says, “but I hope that will continue to grow because we can produce four times as much water.”

Sales so far are strong for Mean, with 15% of families in Paknam village already buying water from her. Commune Chief Kaem Boteng is happy with the sales so far and hopes that they will continue to grow in the future. “We think the progress is good so far but I would like it if all families bought water from the plant.” With enthusiastic customers like Sina spreading the word about affordable safe drinking water to friends and neighbours, this community water treatment plant looks to have a very bright future.

Jeremiah Rogers works for Lien Aid, a UNICEF partner

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