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
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
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
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.