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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - On tap: meet the city’s ‘water hero’

On tap: meet the city’s ‘water hero’

This is the story of how Phnom Penh, the capital of a developing country, came to have clean, drinkable tap water, in some ways more efficient than London’s. It starts, like much in Cambodia, with a corrupt, bullying official.

 “There is a strong general, a three-star general. He has a water connection to his house in Tuol Kork. He has 30 bodyguards in his house and two or three jeeps escort. He’s a very strong man.”

What he doesn’t have is a water meter, adds Sonn Chan – the man who would later become known as the “Clean Water Hero” or “Water Devil” of Phnom Penh.

When Chan became director general of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) in 1993, he and his team of young engineers were tasked with installing water meters at every house in the city – against the will of the majority.

“There were 28,000 connections, so we needed to install 28,000 water meters, and 28,000 people were against us. Difficult. We could not discuss with everyone, so we had to send a very strong message.”

That’s where the general comes in. Sonn Chan sends him a letter telling him to install the meter, but it goes unanswered. On the deadline, he sends a team of people to install the meters forcibly. They are rebuffed.

“So I had to go personally. To me, a leader is like that – someone who is able to do something their subordinates could not.”

He goes to the house, but nobody comes out to talk. “So I am forced to make a hole and cut his connection. Nobody else dares, so I do it myself. So then I feel something touch my head. I look back, it’s the general himself, with his shotgun on his head. I look back, all my five staff have run away.”

Telling the story of that day at his office at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, where he now works, Chan says it’s a favourite – something he “keeps in his life”.  

Sonn Chan isn’t the type to kowtow to corruption. When he started in the job, barely 25 per cent of Phnom Penh residents had access to running water. The old pipes leaked. Staff sold access to the main pipe for up to $5,000. The company was “totally deficit”, with low staff salaries and morale. Bills went unpaid.

Between 1993 and last July, when he turned 60 and, according to government rules, was moved upstairs, he fitted the city with a world-class water system. When he left, nearly 100 per cent of Phnom Penh had water. There were 2000km of pipes. The PPWSA listed on the stock market – the first Cambodian company to do so. Consumers paid bills. Even the general was persuaded.

After having a gun placed to his head, Chan came up with a new plan. 

“We are forced to stop but I tell him you are against the law, you will be punished. So I come to my office, make a report, call to my friend the Governor of Phnom Penh and he sends a troop of 20 police, in a big truck to sever the connection.”

They also are rebuffed. So Chan has the pipe disconnected remotely – but that cuts off the whole road.

Backed into a corner, the general turns up at Sonn Chan’s office.

“So I explain to him – what does it mean to you, that water bill? It is less than you pay one bodyguard. If you were to feed only 20, the money you would save from the extra ten would be less than the bill. Is this about saving face? You think if you refuse to pay the bill, your face is big? The times have changed. Now, people want to see who is the first person who respects the law. That is the best person.

After a long discussion, the general agrees that he and Sonn Chan will co-operate to send a message to the rest of the city.

 “Everyone afterwards said, if the big general can accept, why not me? I told the people – look to the strongest man, if he can provide you with a good lesson, everyone will follow.”  

Sonn Chan chuckles, revelling in the memory. On the shelf in his office a lengthy political tome – an  account of the rise, fall and split of the ruling People’s Action Party of Singapore, one of the world’s most successful political parties – sits alongside a title named ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul.’

The combination of ‘head and heart’ is central to his philosophy, he says. He keeps three ‘f’s’ in mind when managing, he says: fair, firm, and the last is ‘faith’ – in your employees. “Give them the chance to win,” he says.  

The key was to get rid of the corrupted old guard. “Of 500 staff, only 30 per cent had a job to do,” Chan says. When he introduced what he calls his “revolutions”, he “put them in the corner” when he couldn’t fire them and gave their duties to a taskforce of young engineers.  



 “At the first stage there was really very big resistance. Life became very difficult. They took a picture of my face very ugly and printed on the first page of a big newspaper.”

“So we tried to improve very slowly the quality of the service, day by day to show to the Phnom Penh people that by doing so we are able to improve the service to your house – better pressure, so you don’t need to use the pumps and get a higher electricity bill.”

Today, salaries for workers at PPWSA are better than the private sector in some cases, he says.  An engineer can get paid over $1000 where the private sector pays $500.  

Water is also sold at some of the cheapest rates in the world – thanks in part to a very low loss rate, according to Chan.

In London, the percentage of water lost between the treatment plant and the consumer is more than 20 per cent in. In Phnom Penh, it hovers around six and half per cent. When Chan arrived, it was 70 per cent.

“If you have more water you can sell to the people, the price can be cheaper. Lose some, the price must be higher,” Chan says. “It is entirely safe to drink, I guarantee you,” he adds.

When they tested tap water and water from an office water filter at the Phnom Penh Post at the Pasteur Institute for the number of coliforms (bacteria which may indicate the presence of disease-causing organisms) the results were surprising – to everyone but Chan. The water from the filter had 3000 coliforms, and the taps, just three, he says.

“The water people drink everyday is contaminated. Plenty of coliform.”

To stop water filters getting dirty, they need to be cleaned every 24 hours, he says.

As for the rumours that certain old pipes give dirty water, “that is wrong - we have checks every week, everywhere in the city.”

And the idea that, unlike in Western countries, no fluoride is added to water, making teeth rot?

“You need to put fluoride in the water if the water source is lacking fluoride. The quality of Mekong river is OK, no need for fluorides.”

Other developing countries can look to Phnom Penh as an example.

Is his success owing to his personality?

“There’s no question about it,” says Asit K. Biswas, the founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, which advises countries on water issues. Biswas came to Phnom Penh early on in his tenure and has returned twice.​

“I heard so much about what was happening in Phnom Penh which seemed to me simply not possible given the conditions in Cambodia. I thought this would simply be a publicity stunt by some of the donor organizations. So I made a visit to to see if what they were doing was smoke and mirrors or whether there was something to it.

“I was quite taken aback [by Sonn Chan]. He told me to tell him what they were doing wrong so they could improve it faster. It was the first time a head of an institution wanted to know what they were not doing right in order to make things better. And if I could tell him what he could improve he’d be very grateful, he said.

“But what impressed me most is as long as he was Director General he did not allow any of his senior staff to be contacted by political staff. He would take care of it himself, and that was one of he biggest problems in developing countries - constant political interference. It happens all the time in India, Bangladesh. What Ek Sonn Chan did was protect all his people from all kinds of political pressure and shenanigans.”

Biswas says he plans to visit Phnom Penh before June to check on how Sonn Chan’s successor is doing – and the effect PPWSA’s listing on the stock market has had on its performance.

Sonn Chan had an “outstanding reputation” within the financial community, according to Financial Graeme Cunningham, Indochina Head of Research at KT Zmico, a Bangkok-based securities company.

The shares jumped off the IPO after the listing, then collapsed before settling. In the last few weeks, it has picked up – although has not regained its initial status. 

“It has been nearly a year since the listing, and no other stocks have listed, so we have to wonder if without PPWSA there would have been any listings at all yet,” Cunningham says.

But for Sonn Chan, the stock market was never a consideration. Listing “created some difficulties for the water supply,” he says. The extra expenses were enormous, and “expenses increase the cost of water”.

“We were used as tools for the stock markets. We pushed hard to be listed. But after we were listed, no other companies did so. The main achievement was for the stock market.”

“I am not a financialist,” he says.

Now his sights are still set on transforming the water supply of the rest of the country.​ His days may not include armed confrontations with generals, but they are still packed with daunting problems.

“The rest of the country is not quite at the level of the water supply in Phnom Penh. I hope I can make a big contribution to the sector.

“Now, the scale is bigger.”

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