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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Water, water everywhere - nary a safe drop to drink

Water, water everywhere - nary a safe drop to drink

While the rest of the world celebrates International Water Day on March 22, millions

of Cambodians still lack access to basic safe water and sanitation services.

The problem is particularly acute in rural areas, where around 85 percent of the

population lives. Fewer than one in four people living in rural areas have access

to clean, safe drinking water, and under one in ten access to sanitation such as

latrines.

Peter Feldman, country program director of Partners for Development, an NGO, said

the 1998 population census showed that 60 percent of urban residents use safe water,

and around half have access to adequate sanitation.

"No matter whose statistics you look at, access and use of safe water and sanitation

are still very low in Cambodia," said Feldman. "It is a huge problem. It

impacts both the health and the economic well-being of households and the community."

Another factor is the amount of time people must spend to get clean water. That has

a major effect on household economies and the quantity of water they can use.

"It is not just the safety of the water, it is the quantity that is important,"

Feldman said. "Having an adequate quantity of water is critical to human and

household hygiene."

He defined safe water as that which, when consumed, was free of pathogens and was

also chemically safe.

"It could mean wells, piped water supplies, filters in people's houses,"

he said. "There are many ways to provide safe water supply and it has to be

tailored to the needs of society."

Bouy Kim Sreang, rural water supply and sanitation officer at the Ministry of Rural

Development (MRD), said access to clean water was vital.

"Having enough water to use is the main way to reduce poverty," Sreang

said. "If people use clean and safe water they will not get sick ... so they

will not pay one cent for medical services."

His ministry wants to increase the percentage of rural people with access to safe

water and sanitation from around 25 percent to 45 percent by the year 2012. MRD will

also encourage communities to manage and maintain the facilities for long-term use.

"Our aim is to promote and encourage private sector investment in the water

and sanitation sector in order to reach the sector vision in year 2025 - that every

rural community will have sustained access to safe water and sanitation services

and live in a hygienic environment," Sreang said.

Household access to clean water is a key management issue, but experts also point

to the massive amount of water used for agricultural production as a future concern.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) states that up to 90 percent of all fresh water

in the Mekong region is used to grow food. A staggering 3,000 liters of water is

required to yield just one kilogram of rice.

"There is a need to free up some of the water used in agriculture to allow industrial

development, to allow usage in cities," said Gunhild Garsdal, the MRC's benchmark

basin coordinator.

MRC is coordinating a workshop on March 26 and 27 in Phnom Penh to discuss research

priorities for a program to tackle the issue. The program, run by an international

consortium, aims to find ways of growing more food with less water.

The consortium, known by its acronym CGIAR, will provide grant funding for research

in seven basins around the world, one of which is the Mekong River basin.

Effective use of the Mekong and other water resources is vital given the region's

rapidly growing population. MRC estimates that within 25 years the population of

the lower Mekong River Basin will increase by 30 million.

"There is a growing population ... in Cambodia and Laos as a very young population

grows up ... so demand for food will increase," said Delia Paul, MRC communications

officer. "The countries in the Mekong are both highly dependent on farming and

fishing for their livelihood and these two sectors obviously depend on water."

International initiatives are also under way to tackle the issue. The UN has named

2003 the 'International Year of Fresh Water', and the Third World Water Forum will

take place in Japan from March 16 to 23. Delegates from the Ministry of Water Resources

and Meteorology will attend.

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