Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A day in a life: Kem and his work at the water treatment system

By Eun-Young Jeong

Bottled water ready to be delivered to households and schools in Voa Sar commune
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Eun-Young Jeong

Kem Sokkem wakes up every day at 4 a.m. from his hammock next to a stack of empty water bottles. He’s been sleeping inside the water treatment facility in his village for over a year now.

It’s not that he’s homeless. Kem’s house is just a few minutes away. But living at the water treatment facility has become a routine. “If I sleep here, I can start work right away and make sure nothing gets stolen,” says the twenty-two-year-old.

Starting the day at 4 o’clock in the morning is not easy, but Kem is committed. Plus, he has a clear goal: to deliver 21 twenty-litre bottles to two nearby primary schools by 7 a.m. After that, he has about another 50 bottles to deliver around his community in Voa Sar commune.

Kandal village, Tuek Saat 1001 and UNICEF

Kandal village, located in Voa Sar Commune, Samrong Tong district, Kampong Speu province, is a sleepy town in daytime. Most adults in the village work in the nearby garment factories throughout the day or do construction work. Some are in farming—which was originally the main source of income for most people in the area before foreign investors turned the quiet town into a clothes manufacturing hub.

The water treatment system in Voa Sar commune was built in December 2013 by Tuek Saat 1001 with support from UNICEF. Teuk Saat 1001 is a local NGO dedicated to providing clean and safe water in rural communities by supporting communes to set up safe water businesses. Because Tuek Saat 1001’s water businesses are run by members of the community, they are sustainable and provide a source of income for the community.

The first of its kind in the area, the Voa Sar water treatment facility supplies clean and safe drinking water to people in the community at a modest price of 30 cents per 20-litre bottle for refills (the initial cost is US$4 for the refillable water bottle). The refill price is three times lower than the going market price.

Schools in the community receive drinkable water free of charge under Tuek Saat 1001’s business model. This is delivered in green bottles, different from the blue ones used in households, to ensure that the water is only consumed in schools.

Kandal village in Voa Sar commune, Kampong Speu province
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Eun-Young Jeong
How Kem turned the tide

Before working at the water treatment facility, Kem worked as a proolan—a Khmer word which roughly translates to ‘an assistant for truck drivers’—traveling long distances with drivers, while managing fuel payments, dealing with traffic police and chatting with drivers to make sure they didn’t doze off during long trips. He earned about US$30 per month.

“If you’re a proolan, your life is on the road. I like what I’m doing now because I can learn skills,” says Kem. These days, Kem earns about US$75 per month and receives about an extra 8 cents for every bottle he sells. He divides the sales revenue from the water bottles with his father and a distant cousin who work with him at the water treatment centre.

Kem says that most of his peers have left the village to find jobs or migrated to urban areas after getting married.

While Kem enjoys his work at the water treatment facility, life off the road isn’t easy. Kem shared his daily routine to show how his life revolves around the water treatment facility. His schedule also gives a glimpse of how water is treated at the Voa Sar water treatment system.

Kem’s day

4:00 a.m.
Wake up and clean returned water bottles for refilling. About 70 bottles are returned on a given day to be cleaned. Most are cleaned the night before and any remaining ones are cleaned the next morning. Bottles are cleaned with detergent powder and water and then disinfected using chlorine. The cleaned bottles are put on racks to be dried before being refilled.

5:00 a.m.
Fill up empty bottles with treated water and seal them for delivery to schools and households (Kem says he takes exactly 71 bottles—the maximum number that can fit in his truck).

7:00 a.m.
Load water bottles onto truck and drive to the two nearby primary schools. After dropping off about 10 water bottles in each school, Kem heads to the village community to sell water bottles. In each household, bottled water is given in exchange for empty bottles that are taken back to the facility to be cleaned and reused.

1:00 p.m.
Return to water treatment facility with empty refill bottles and unload them from truck. Go home for lunch.

2:30 p.m.
Begin water treatment process for water to be sold the next day or that same afternoon. Pump up water from the canal into cylinder water tanks. It takes about 30 minutes to pump up 2,000 litres of water into the two cylinder tanks.

3:00 p.m.
Treat canal water in the cylinder tanks with chemicals to make sure that any big particles like mud in the water sink to the bottom. Stir the two cylinders for 15 minutes each. This process is called flocculation.

Kem stirs water after mixing it with chemicals to remove big particles like mud
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Eun-Young Jeong

After the stirring, the remaining process for treating the water is relatively automatic. Kem switches on a tap to allow the flocculated water to transfer into a bio-sand filter and then a charcoal filter to remove smaller particles, taste and odour from the water. This process is called filtration.

The flocculated and filtrated water is then stored briefly in a tank before going through a UV system for final treatment. As the water goes through the UV system, it is exposed to UV rays that kill germs and decontaminates the water. The UV system is not switched on until the final bottling stage so that drinkable water is bottled directly without being stored in a water tank.

But an automated process doesn’t mean that Kem gets to take time off. While this is going on, Kem starts cleaning the empty bottles he collected in the morning or does bookkeeping to record his sales for the day.

If there were houses that didn’t get the water bottles that morning, Kem bottles the newly treated water and returns back to the village to sell them. After this second round of sales, Kem returns back to the water treatment facility to continue cleaning returned water bottles or to fill them up with water and seal them for delivery the next day.

Kem’s day (continued)

7:00 p.m.
Go home for dinner.

9:00 p.m.
After dinner, Kem comes back to the water treatment facility to finish off any work that needs to be done like cleaning bottles or sealing them. He goes to sleep to start another day.

Kem plans to expand the water treatment business
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Eun-Young Jeong
Kem’s future plans

Kem dropped out of school when he was in Grade 9. But his limited education opportunities have not bent his will to continue learning nor his ambition. With Tuek Saat 1001’s support, Kem has learned marketing, financial, communication and organizational skills. Applying his newly gained knowledge, Kem is thinking of expanding the water treatment system.

At the moment, though, he’s taking it one step at a time. His first goal is to save enough cash to purchase a new truck. The current one is windowless, according to Kem, too slow and difficult to drive. “Once I get a new truck, I’ll be able to sell more water bottles. Then, I’ll plan for what comes next.”


UNICEF supports children and households in Cambodia’s rural communities to access clean and safe drinking water under the AEON-funded water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme. Unclean water and sanitation is one of the major issues affecting the lives of children in Cambodia. Dehydration caused by diarrhoea, which may be caused by drinking unclean water, is one of the leading causes of sickness and deaths for children worldwide. It is estimated that only 69 per cent of Cambodia’s rural population has access to safe drinking water, with the rate falling to 60 per cent in the dry season (2014 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey). 


  1. great job young boy. Wish you success and I hope more Cambodian people can access to clean water.

  2. Wish your dream come true young man. And I hope Cambodian people will get clean water more in the future. Thanks to Tuek Saat 1001's support.

    1. https://www.facebook.com/TeukSaat1001NGO/?fref=nf