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Bad water, bad food

The Editor,

E ric Vohr's article on the floating farms of Boeung Trabek was very informative

("City fighting flood problem, but lake squatters to lose", Post Feb 9-22),

but there is one additional important issue in this story. The floating farms and

homes in Boeung Trabek exist in raw sewage and untreated storm waters. Many of the

vegetables, herbs, and spices grown in these lowlands, as well as other flooded lands

in Phnom Penh, are eaten without first being cooked. The health risks to farmers,

residents, and customers buying the produce at the market have not been studied,

although one experienced UN worker mentioned that typhoid fever illnesses have been

caused by practices at floating farms. Anyone who visits the area could quickly understand

the problem as evidenced by pungent odors, black water, and foam. Reducing human

contact with the untreated wastewater is essential for protecting public health.

Obviously, this issue will add to the reasons to evict the floating farmers. Therefore,

the government and donor agencies should seriously consider adequate compensation,

and provision of farmable land close to Phnom Penh, so the farmers can continue to

use their existing markets.

This area shows potential for development of a natural wastewater treatment system

for Phnom Penh. Such a system, based on engineered ponds and wetlands for example,

could be designed at the upstream end of Boeung Trabek (as well as in other areas

of Phnom Penh). A properly designed treatment works would allow the farmers downstream

to utilize treated waters, still rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, but without the

disease-causing organisms and toxic metals. A natural system is substantially less

expensive to build and maintain (millions of dollars less), treats water more effectively

and reliably, and is easier to operate versus the "concrete and steel"

systems we often associate with wastewater treatment. The difficulty is natural treatment

systems require sizable land areas and, undoubtedly, some farmers would have to move.

I believe many residents would be happy to move given a fair price for the land and

assistance in finding other suitable farming sites. The area is not the most pleasant

to live and work in, aside from the health problems.

There are at least four international organizations currently working on the flooding

and wastewater problem in Phnom Penh. Lets hope they consider all the available options

for control and treatment of these waters, and present these options to the affected

populations (who will probably have to pay the future costs of the selected technology,

regardless of who constructs it). The money saved by constructing a natural treatment

system could be spent on helping relocate farmers in high risk areas, health and

sanitation education, and providing sanitation for the floating farmers remaining

in the area.

- Douglas Titus, Consultant Biologist for IDRC, Battambang



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