Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Safe drinking water provides healthier lives and incomes

 By Ashanti Bleich and Chanthea Chaing

The team running Souk Kong’s new water treatment plant
supported by UNICEF and 1001 Fontaines in Kampong Cham Province
© UNICEFCambodia/2015/Ashanti Bleich

Sour Kong commune is in a remote area of Kampong Cham Province. Until recently, its population of 11,193 relied solely on tube wells and the nearby Mekong River for fresh water. Using these sources put the health of its population at great risk: well water in this region is at high risk of arsenic contamination, while the river water, which is consumed untreated, is full of microbes, leading to diarrhoeal-related illnesses.

Through arsenic testing and educational activities, UNICEF and the Provincial Department of Rural Development engaged Sour Kong to understand the risks of its water practices, helping the Commune Council to realize the importance of generating and consuming safe water. The commune was then approached by the provincial department and local WASH NGO Teuk Saat 1001 to facilitate the installation of a new water treatment system that would bottle treated local water, part of AEON-funded UNICEF activities in this arsenic-risk area. Local officials, now aware of the benefits such a system could bring, contributed land for the plant and later recruited entrepreneurs and operators to run the system.

In 2013, Teuk Saat completed the new plant, one of 63 similar community drinking water systems that have been installed in arsenic high-risk provinces of Kampong Cham, Kandal and Prey Veng and in the arsenic low-risk province of Kampong Speu. These systems are providing safe water to 29,591 families and 62,524 schoolchildren with the help of AEON funds.

Teuk Saat 1001 has been building such systems in Cambodia since 2007. Recognizing an opportunity to leverage this expertise, UNICEF advocated with the Ministry of Rural Development to bring Teuk Saat’s model to arsenic-affected provinces. UNICEF played a key role in coordinating and bringing the technology to the table, leading to more than 120 systems installed across rural Cambodia.

An interesting component of Teuk Saat 1001’s approach is its locally led model: it trains community members to run the water distribution systems as private businesses, a method that encourages sustainability by making beneficiaries responsible for successful system functioning.

Operator Chhairy Yen washes bottles with soap and disinfects with chlorine
© UNICEFCambodia/2015/Ashanti Bleich
Phearun Yen and his wife Chhairy operate a UNICEF and Teuk Saat 1001-supported water treatment plant. Phearun used to be a rice farmer. But when he saw the Commune Council’s advertisement about the entrepreneur and operator jobs to run the newly installed water system, he thought it could be a great opportunity to increase his family’s income while helping the community access clean water. Teuk Saat 1001 trained the couple to run a water treatment plant and a business (budgeting, marketing, sales, delivery); an advisor from the NGO has remained available to support them.

Sour Kong’s new water treatment plant is situated next to the Mekong River. Through a pump and piped water system, river water is collected, stored in a tank, poured into filters (sand filter, carbon filter, micro filter) and finally disinfected using a UV lamp. This process removes all bacteria to produce clean water with consistent quality. The water is then poured into 20-liter bottles and ready for consumption. Customers can purchase the bottles at the site for 1,200 Cambodian riel (US$0.3) or have it delivered at a cost of 1,500 Cambodian riel (US$0.375).

Phearun and Chhairy’s team delivers an average of 160 bottles per day, exchanging them for empty bottles that are returned to the plant. Chhairy cleans the bottles with soap and disinfects them with chlorine before Phearun refills them with safe drinking water, after which they are closed and sealed.

Phearun and Chhairy explain that since they started their work, an important challenge has been to raise awareness in the community. “On a daily basis, when we deliver bottles we provide information and leaflets to households to educate them on the importance of safe drinking water and its health impact,” Phearun says.

Entrepreneur Phearun Yen fills bottles with safe drinking water
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Ashanti Bleich
“The 20-liter bottle is safer, cheaper and less time consuming then boiling water,” Chhairy adds. They talk about their own family and describe how they go through a 20-litre bottle every two days. The commune chief and water committee have also helped spread the message among households. These contributions have boosted sales and helped Phearun’s family cover their expenses and the education of their three children, while also providing safe water to 1,423 families.

The couple’s commitment has paid off: In December 2013, when the project was implemented, they sold 1,000 bottles per month. They now supply up to 5,000 bottles per month to the community. To recognize their hard work, Teuk Saat 1001 has invited them as guest speakers to share their successful experience at an upcoming workshop for key WASH stakeholders in Cambodia.

With the family’s help, word about the importance of safe water is spreading—one bottle at a time.

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