Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Entrepreneurship supports clean water for rural Cambodians

By Jorge Alvarez-Sala 

Khenh Taiveng, a local entrepreneur who has invested in a piped water system in Poutiban Commune, Kandal Province
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala

In Cambodia, more than 2.25 million people live in arsenic affected areas. The southwestern province of Kandal, through which the Bassac River flows, is the most severely affected province in the country. In Kandal, 35 per cent of wells tested have proven to have arsenic greater than national standard of 50 parts per billion (ppb). In some wells the concentration of arsenic exceeds the WHO standard of 10 ppb by more than 200 times.

Arsenic was first confirmed in drinking water in Cambodia during the Cambodia Drinking Water Quality Assessment, conducted in 2000. Ever since, UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Rural Development in an arsenic mitigation programme, which includes awareness raising campaigns in arsenic affected areas and promotion of alternative water sources. One alternative is harvesting rainwater, however the dry season lasts for up to six months and most families do not have any way to store enough water to last that long. Using surface water – from rivers or ponds for example – is another option, however this water must be treated which is a complicated and unaffordable process for many families.

Therefore the most suitable alternative is piped water from a water treatment plant – yet less than 10 per cent of rural Cambodians have access to piped water.  At the current rate of investment, including both government and development partners, it would take around 40 years to expand piped water systems to the entire population.

There is a clear need for further support and investment to fulfil people’s human right to clean water, especially in arsenic affected areas.

In this context, entrepreneurs like Khenh Taiveng can play a key role. Taiveng is a local businessman who is investing in the construction of a piped water system in Poutiban Commune, Kaoh Thom District, Kandal Province. This is the second system in which Taiveng has invested: the other is successfully providing clean water to families in another district of Kandal.

Clean water supply at a household in Chheu Khmao Commune, Kaoh Thom District, Kandal Province
© UNICEF/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala

Taiveng’s investment has been secured through an innovative programme. The Department of Industry and Handicraft of Kandal Province opened a competitive bidding process for the licence to build and operate the piped water system in Poutiban. A number of entrepreneurs from both Kandal and Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh submitted applications, but Taiveng’s bid was successful. Several criteria were taken into consideration, including the previous experience of each bidder and that Taiveng was already successfully operating another water system.

The bid assessment committee also considered the maximum price of the water being supplied: Taiveng will charge less than US$0.50 for 1,000 litres of safe water. Compare this to what many families in Poutiban currently pay: up to US$1.75 for 1,000 litres of unsafe river water delivered by truck or cart by local water vendors. During the height of dry season when water is most scarce, water vendors charge even more – up to US$3 per 1,000 litres.

A household of five people is likely to use between 3,000 and 6,000 litres of water each month for domestic purposes. Therefore the new system – where the unsafe water from mobile water vendors is replaced by clean piped water – could result in a household financial saving of between $3.75 and $7.50 every month in addition to numerous health benefits.

Khenh Taiveng (wearing black t-shirt) at the construction site with representatives from UNICEF and other stakeholders
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala

For the water system in Poutiban Commune, more than half of the capital investment will be provided by the entrepreneur; the rest is covered by UNICEF and its partner organisation GRET. GRET, a French non-governmental organization, is also in charge of site supervision during the construction phase and makes sure that the provision of water includes the most vulnerable groups, including poor households and those living far away from the commune centre.

When completed, the new system will provide clean water to residents of the nine villages within Poutiban Commune. Water will be pumped from the Bassac River into the water treatment plant. There dirt and other particles are removed from the water, it is filtered, and finally chlorinated. The water then goes into an elevated water tower 25 meters tall, which generates the pressure required to distribute the clean water throughout the piped water system.

The main pipe network, transporting water along the 16 kilometre length of the commune, has been installed by Taiveng. Each household will be responsible for making a contribution of US$35 to cover the cost of connecting to the main pipe network – an affordable fee given the savings that each household will generate once connected. UNICEF will cover half of this connection cost for the poorest households in the commune, to ensure that all families have access to clean water.

Treatment plant of raw water from the Bassac river in Chheu Khmao Commune, Kaoh Thom district, Kandal Province
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala

This model has been successful because it:

(1) Reduces the capital investment costs of the government and its development partners, as there is a significant contribution from the private sector. Private investors like Taiveng are expected to fully recover their investment within 10 years;

(2) Ensures the sustainability of the system. Many rural water supply systems have a short lifespan due to poor operation and maintenance. In this model the financial investment of the operator guarantees that the system will be functional and provide a good service, because if the system fails or provides sub-standard services the entrepreneur will lose their investment.

The benefit for rural communities is clear: access to safe, treated water that would have been unaffordable and/or unsustainable by using any other models. The taps installed in every household provide arsenic-free water, and both quality and price are controlled by the Provincial Department of Industry and Handicraft. The cost of the piped water is affordable even to the poorest members of the community.

This model is an excellent example of how the private sector can contribute to improve the living conditions of, and the provision of basic services to, rural Cambodian families. The country needs entrepreneurs like Taiveng, and an enabling environment that makes investments possible. The scalability of this model is extraordinary: millions more Cambodians require access to safe drinking water. Further investment following this model will help to realize that basic human right.

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