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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - City water: the good, the bad and the ugly

City water: the good, the bad and the ugly

Water Supply Authority staff test water quality at a rooftop tank in Street 108 for the Phnom Penh Post. From left: production director Khut Vuthiarith, and laboratory technicans Ky Charicha and Kudo Hang.

There is good news and bad news about the Phnom Penh city water. The good news is that the treated water is unquestionably safe to drink.

The bad news is that your household or workplace bulk storage tank may be polluting what comes out of the tap.

Having spent the past 12 years and $110 million of mostly other nations' money upgrading the whole system, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority now faces an even greater challenge: persuading consumers to cut off their storage tanks and stop boiling the water for drinking.

Thousands of buildings have concrete storage tanks from which water is pumped for household and business use. Random sample testing carried out by the WSA for the Phnom Penh Post reveals that water in a high proportion of these tanks is polluted by bacterial organisms and is unsafe for drinking.

Many tanks are underground, built of semi-porous materials and may be polluted by sewage and stormwater intrusion (they share the same drains). Unless regularly flushed out they can become biological breeding factories resistant to chlorine disinfection.

Enclosed stainless steel tanks are safer.

The WSA deputy director Long Naro says a simple test for all consumers is: "If you can smell chlorine in the tap water it is safe to drink; chlorine kills the bacteria.

We supply high-quality water 24 hours a day at every metered connection from the mains, but we have no control over what happens in storage tanks."

Our survey also revealed that people are concerned about lack of pressure being unable to deliver water high enough in multi-level buildings. This is why concrete storage tanks are still being built.

But Naro says pumped pressure in the four central districts is maintained in daylight hours at 20-25 metres, easily sufficient for a four-floor building (calculated at 4 metres per floor). In the three outer suburban districts, where buildings are lower, the delivery height is 8-15 metres.

The treatment and supply system was virtually wrecked by the Khmer Rouge but it is now one of the best in Southeast Asia. However, current distrust of water quality by city dwellers represents generations of scepticism about public statements.

The authority is planning a major public education and awareness campaign.

Water Supply Authority director Ek Sonn Chan fills a glass from his office tap ...

I'm interviewing Ek Sonn Chan, general director of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA), in the big administration building, next to the railway station.

He has been speaking proudly and enthusiastically about improvements made to the city's water supply and, having listened, I ask: "But is your water safe to drink?"

"Well, judge for yourself; you're drinking it, ordinary tap water," says Sonn Chan, pointing to the glass at my elbow. "What we deliver to every home in the city is completely safe. Like all our staff and our families I have been drinking this water myself for two years. If you get sick from this water I will pay your medical expenses."

But something appears to have gone dreadfully wrong with PPWSA's public communications, because almost everyone tells me the water is unsafe. They use it to bathe and shower, brush their teeth, wash dishes, wash fruit and vegetables, have the ice in their beer, but they don't drink the water without boiling first.

Good quality fresh water is a resource that Cambodia has in abundance, and particularly around the capital city, located at the confluence of three major rivers. None of these rivers is subject to pollution by upstream heavy industries; the water discoloration is caused by sand and silt. Phnom Penh draws its raw supply from intake structures on each of these rivers, and it is treated to WHO standards at three modern treatment plants. Any two of these plants can treat and supply the 24-hour daily needs of a city of one million people.

Twelve years ago intrusion of sewage and stormwater, illegal connections and rusty pipes made the reticulation system a reliable deliverer of cholera, typhoid, diarrhea and dysentery, to name the worst of the water-borne diseases.

The water has been safe to drink for two years, he says.

What Sonn Chann and his team have achieved since 1993 is like something out of Ripley's Believe it or Not. The result: Phnom Penh city has one of the best performed and managed public water systems in Southeast Asia, and has just been awarded the Asian Development Bank's Water Prize for 2004. To achieve this Sonn Chan and his team battled the Khmer Rouge's legacy of neglect, plus prejudice, corruption, suspicion and a dysfunctional and near-bankrupt government.

The restructured WSA is a model of infrastructural efficiency that others could learn from.

The old Phnom Penh reticulation system has been completely replaced, expanded to service the whole city, and treatment facilities upgraded.

The total cost was $110 million, comprising a $20 million loan from the World Bank, a $10 million loan from the ADB, a $60 million grant from the Japanese Government in three stages (new treatment plant, replacement of some distribution mains), and $20 million from the French Government (used mostly for computer software and billing systems).

Money was loaned to the Government at 8.5 percent interest, with an initial five years paying interest only and 10 years principal repayment. The Government then negotiated 10 years grace and 35 years repayment.

Spared for mission
To understand how this has happened, one needs to understand what makes Sonn Chan tick. He graduated as an electrical engineer and worked in France before returning to Phnom Penh in the fateful year of 1975. He was moved to the killing fields by the Khmer Rouge and over a period of 10 months all his family were killed. "My father, my mother, my brother and my brother's children. I alone survived, by keeping quiet and just working." Sonn Chan quietly weeps while he remembers.

Taking a sample from a dispenser container in a training centre. This proved to have an extremely high bacterial count. Lab experiments will determine whether removal of chlorine from bottled water and storage in warm conditions encourages bacteria.

When appointed director of the water authority he decided his life had been spared for a purpose, and he began a mission to improve the health and welfare of his people.

He inherited "a supply system in ruins; 70 percent of the water was being lost through leaks and illegal connctions; all our engineers were dead and much was destroyed including records of the underground pipe network. The city grew in three months from empty to 700,000 as people came flooding back from the killing fields.

"It was very difficult to convince the large multi-lateral donors to give us the first loan because the water works was in such a mess. The dilemma for us was how to build a new system on borrowed money and pay for it with revenue from water

sales. We spent nearly one year talking to the World Bank and ADB specialists, trying to convince them we could complete our strategy and meet their performance conditions.

"I think the turning point was at a World Bank workshop at the Hotel Juliana.

I made an appeal from the heart. I said: 'The Cambodian people have suffered for many years of war under different regimes, and then came the killing fields, and now we are suffering in time of peace because of our water. We are the survivors

from those killing fields. We need your help to save our people, to move on from that history'. This was my emotional plea."

In 1993 when Sonn Chan became director, PPWSA was being heavily subsidised by the Government: the annual income generated was only 0.6 billion riel, against operating costs of 1.6 billion riel. It had more than 500 staff on an average monthly salary of 50,000 riel (then about $20); they were under-qualified, under-paid, inefficient, unmotivated; nepotism was endemic, and higher management were driven by self-interest.

The authority supplied 63,000 cubic metres a day, from two treatment plants at Phum Prek and Chamkar Morn (the third at Chruoy Changvar, built by the French in 1895, had been decommissioned in 1983 in a badly deteriorated condition; it has since been fully restored to a working showpiece, including the original architecture). The distribution network covered 40 percent of the city area and served only 20 percent of the population; 30 percent of the pipes had been laid for more than 100 years and the newest were 40 years old. Physical losses were high due to deterioration of the pipes and lack of maintenance.

Of the 26,881 supply connections, only 13 percent were metered, billing was inaccurate and only 28 percent of water was sold. Only 40 percent of bills were collected.

The staff were in fact selling illegal connections at around $1000 each, for their own benefit. In 1993 alone the number of illegal connections discovered was 300.

The overall effect was that more than 70 percent of the water did not earn revenue.

The water authority's income was so low that it could not pay its own electricity bill, and at times could not even afford to buy aluminium sulphate, the primary chemical used in the treatment process to remove particles.

"We had to make people pay. I knocked on many doors saying the water was no longer free and the more you use the more you pay. Some rich powerful people were used to not paying. Other people said: 'Why should I pay when the VIPs don't pay?'

So those who refused to pay, we disconnected their supply. It took only six months to raise the collection ratio to 99 percent. At the same time we were intalling meters on every connection while we rebuilt the network."

Sonn Chann says: "We started the transformation of the supply authority with a fundamental change of culture, based on education, motivation, discipline. Higher management were given more responsibility; better qualified younger people were promoted; inefficient old timers were moved into more dormant roles.

"Incentives such as higher salaries (10 times more than previous), bonuses for good performance, and penalties for bad performance were introduced. More responsibility and teamwork was encouraged. Staff numbers were reduced by 100."

A three-pronged approach was adopted to generate revenue:

* Consumer records were revised after a survey found that in 1993 there were 12,980 documented connections not receiving water; and 13,901 receiving water but not documented.

In 1995 an automatic billing system funded by France was implemented. Simultaneously, installation of meters on all connections began.

Result: Between 1996 and 2003, the number of metered connections increased from 32,404 to 105,000.

* Public announcements were made of a crackdown on illegal connections. Heavy penalties were levied and examples made of key abusers. The authority offered rewards for information.

Staff found to be involved in this fraud were fired. As a result, illegal connections dropped from one a day to fewer than five a year.

The authority set about rehabilitating (renewing where needed) and extending its entire distribution network. The public were encouraged to report leaks and a repair team was available on 24 hour standby.

Result: Non-revenue water (NRW) dropped to 16 percent, the lowest in Southeast Asia.

"The NRW is important because 1 percent of our water costs $50,000 a year to produce and supply. If you reduce NRW by 10 percent you have a surplus of $500,000.

In Southeast Asia the average NRW is 25 percent. We have real full cost recovery, not just creative accounting."

* The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority launched a campaign to educate the public, other government agencies and even its own top management, on the importance of paying their water bills.

"This was not an easy task, but with a lot of hard work, strong support from the Prime Minister and leadership by example, bill collections improved from 50 percent in 1993 to 99 percent currently," Sonn Chan said. "The ADB said this is the highest they have ever known for a water authority."

The most difficult task of all was a plan to increase the water tariff in three steps over seven years, starting in 1997. This move was strongly supported by the authority's lenders and committed to by both the Governor of Phnom Penh and the Prime Minister.

The results were so spectacular that full cost recovery was achieved in only two steps.

"The Governor's support was critical because the health of the city was at stake, the capital cost enormous, we had to borrow, and we had no operational income to pay for it," Sonn Chann said.

"The previous tariff was nonsense but nobody wanted to make the decision. I had the opportunity to explain our strategy to Hun Sen personally and he could see the logic of it. We had to recover costs to be able to run it as a successful self-supporting business.

Network rehabilitation and extension was completed between 1996 and 2002. Treatment plants were upgraded. A new 16 km transmission line was laid across the city, financed by the ADB. The network now comprises 1000km, covering 100 percent of the inner city and suburbs, which amounts to 85 percent of the whole city; this will increase to 95 percent by the end of 2005, to include the rural outskirts (currently areas dependent on underground and rainwater).

"The PPWSA has actively assisted the Government's aim to alleviate poverty," says Sonn Chan.

Technicians sample water from a steel roof tank for residual chlorine testing.

"Poor communities are mostly located at places with difficult access and poor hygiene and most spend too much time just getting enough water for their daily needs, often having to buy at high rates from water resellers. To lessen this burden on families we made it a policy to supply clean, safe water directly to them. By 2002 we had made a total of 6046 connections among the 61 poor communities within the city.

"This requires cross-subsidisation from larger users, through our consumption-based monthly tariff brackets: 7 cubic metres (7m3) 550 riel, 8-50m3 720 riel, 60-100m3 940 riel; above that 1002 riel."

There is no contracting out. The PPWSA does everything, from treating water, to laying pipes, to making house connections, to reading meters, billing and collecting bill payments.

Sonn Chan says: "There is no contracting out whatsoever. We have the ability to do the whole operation. If we were to go out to private sector it puts people out of work. I think also that we are incorruptible.

"I hear it said that only the private sector can run the city efficiently, but for me it's not a matter of public or private. It's a matter of process, leadership and policy, and the WSA we have today represents government policy. The profit made is the profit of the people."

As I arrived for the interview a group of Japanese men were just leaving. Sonn Chan said they were looking for any opportunities to invest in state enterprises, "and they are very interested in the PPWSA.

"But it's not for sale. I told the Japanese party that we have no need of private sector participation. As a public utility we can perform better than the private sector. Also, our performance quality does not become compromised by profit goals.

"But these are my personal views; the Government may see things differently.

I am just in charge of the operational side."

Testing raises questions about bottled water

The Phnom Penh Post nominated eight locations around the city at which water was tested by the PPWSA technical team, for residual chlorine and, where appropriate, bacterial load.

The World Health Organisation standard per litre for safe drinking is 0.20-0.50 mg of residual chlorine and nil bacteria.

We tested water from garden hoses, taps, roof tanks, and filtered bottled commercial water.

In all cases the tap water direct from mains contained sufficient residual chlorine to be safe for drinking. The exceptions were large household storage tanks which did not meet the standard. Large tanks with low usage tended to have higher bacteria counts. Garden hoses, closer to the mains supply, produced the cleanest water.

There were two surprising results: a regularly serviced ultraviolet radiation unit produced viable bacteria during operation and was not recommended for drinking.

A 20-litre bottle of filtered mineral water upended on a dispenser in a training centre was discovered to have a very high bacterial count, probably enough to cause diarrhea.

As a result of this the PPWSA lab is now conducting controlled experiments to determine the effect of temperature on bacterial growth and how soon the water needs to be consumed before bacterial count rises to an undesirable level. The chlorine is removed from filtered water and bacteria may flourish in warm conditions.

The bottled water industry is huge and highly profitable. Sonn Chan estimates local factories produce 500,000 litres a day, retailing at 1000 riel per litre. "The irony is that most of this water comes from our supply, purchased for 1000 riel per

cubic metre, which represents a profit of 1000 percent for the bottlers," he says.

"If people don't like the chlorine smell from our city water, they can fill a bottle, leave it for half a day with the lid off, and then store it in the fridge.

This allows the chlorine gas to evaporate, but it will still control bacteria in the water."

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