Improving Water Quality in Cambodia for Health and Economical BenefitsWater quality in Cambodia is a national problem. As of 2014, UNICEF reported that 6.3 million out of 14.9 million Cambodians, nearly half of the population, lacked access to clean drinking water.

Rural regions often struggle to address standing water and runoff as a result of inadequate infrastructure, particularly during the May to November monsoon season.

In some villages, rain water is collected and stored in cement structures. In the absence of expensive water treatment systems, the stored water may harbor parasites.

Heavy rain may also leave standing water, which contributes to the proliferation of pests like snakes and mosquitoes. Rain and standing water also become a problem when trash and refuse are left outside of buildings, where they can contaminate the water that drains into agricultural fields or later joins groundwater.

According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), in the Asia-Pacific region where Cambodia is located, nearly 80 percent of waste water is untreated when it is released.

The issue of standing water and untreated waste water explains why outbreaks of waterborne diseases follow precipitation events – an issue of huge concern, in a country with a six-month rainy season. Indeed, the ABD says, the Asia-Pacific region is a “global hot spot for water insecurity.”

Water quality in Cambodia urgently needs to be addressed. The second leading cause of death for children under five years of age is diarrhea, which is a common result of waterborne illness. Even so, 40 percent of primary schools and 35 percent of clinics in Cambodia lack clean water.

Economic development is also dependent on water quality. Rana Flowers, Cambodia’s UNICEF representative, explains that “Attention to rural water supply, sanitation, and hygiene will unquestionably deliver results — less child deaths, better learning at school, less disease, more productive workers, less health costs for the people and the system.”

Further, the ADB expects water demands in the Asia-Pacific region to increase 55 percent by the year 2050, for domestic needs and as a result of the growth in manufacturing and thermal electricity generation. To complicate matters further, climate change is likely to contribute to problems of water scarcity and extreme weather. Water treatment plans that enable the safe reuse of water will be important for addressing water scarcity while protecting public health.

Even so, water quality in Cambodia has improved in recent years. UNICEF reports that around 21,000 new wells have been constructed in Cambodia since 1983, and as a result, as many as 420,000 families now benefit from clean water.

In addition, UNICEF works with the government to educate communities on the risks of contaminants like arsenic, to test wells for these contaminants, and to establish safer sources of water. As sanitation improves, more students, especially girls, are able to attend school.

As new water treatment infrastructure is put into place and older systems are updated in Cambodia and elsewhere, information regarding the efficacy of different sanitation technologies against dangerous pathogens will be vital.

The Global Water Pathogen Project aims to provide this information via online, open-access articles in “a developing platform to support global exposure assessments, risk assessments, and enable evaluation of sanitation technologies for achieving health-based targets.” Through this work, the organization contributes to goals set in place by UNESCO, the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation.

Madeline Reding

Photo: Flickr