Sam Bonal, a technician with the Department of Rural Water Supply takes a water sample in Preah Sdaach district, Prey Veng, as part of the World Health Organization water quality survey.
RELIMINARY results of a World Health Organization (WHO)-sponsored survey of Cambodia's
water quality have revealed traces of "relatively high levels" of arsenic
in samples of groundwater taken from the provinces of Prey Veng, Kandal, Battambang
The survey, formulated by WHO-Cambodia in collaboration with the Ministry of Rural
Development (MRD) and the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME), revealed
that 9 percent of a total of 88 rural ground water samples taken in 13 provinces
between March and June indicated arsenic contamination. At least two of the arsenic-contaminated
samples originated from water sources in unnamed provincial capitals.
"It so happens that in our test samples 9 percent of the tests contained some
arsenic...according to WHO water safety guidelines; those 9 percent [of test results]
are relatively high," explained Ministry of Rural Development Secretary of State
Thuch and WHO officials emphasized that determining the full extent of the arsenic
poisoning and its potential human impact required urgent additional testing in affected
The preliminary survey results also indicated potentially harmful levels of fluoride
and nitrate in "a very small number" of water samples. The survey results
of 4,000 separate analyses for evidence of pesticide contamination of ground water
sources indicated levels "too low to measure".
The water sources surveyed consisted mainly of hand-pump wells built by an array
of organizations including UNICEF, UNDP-CARERE, Partners for Development and Concern
Thuch said he initiated the survey based on his concern that mass arsenic poisoning
of the type discovered in Bangladesh in 1993 might occur in Cambodia, but insisted
that the survey's preliminary results indicated that the current public health risk
posed by the arsenic was minimal.
"In the short term, it [the presence of arsenic] is not a serious problem,"
Thuch said, explaining that the majority of Cambodia's 40,000 rural wells were built
in the past decade and thus fell short of the 15 to 20 years linked to potentially
fatal arsenic exposure.
However, Thuch said immediate and urgent further investigation of the threat posed
by the arsenic contamination was essential.
"The [water quality] survey shows the need for serious, continuing water quality
testing in Cambodia," he said. "We need financial assistance from donors
to enable WHO to carry out further water quality testing and evaluation of the arsenic
Steve Iddings, a WHO Environmental Engineer, was unable to give precise figures on
the level of arsenic contamination uncovered by the survey, but echoed Thuch's insistence
that the levels didn't indicate a serious public health threat.
""I'd prefer to say that we [WHO] don't expect the levels [of arsenic in
Cambodian groundwater] to cause problems of the scale of seriousness of Bangladesh
... By and large water quality is quite good but further attention is warranted,"
Iddings said. "There's been no indication of clinical [arsenic] poisoning and
we don't expect any, but further testing is needed to determine to what extent arsenic
occurs [in groundwater] and if any people have been affected."
According to Iddings, the discovery of arsenic contamination in Cambodia's groundwater
sources was "no surprise".
"The Southeast Asian region is known to be pre-disposed to arsenic... Arsenic
occurs in alluvial deposits along river plains," he said. "Since high levels
of these elements were detected in Bangladesh, worldwide attention has focused on
arsenic and fluoride."
Both Thuch and WHO-Cambodia officials urged public calm in the wake of the release
of the survey's preliminary results, describing the health threat of bacteriologically
contaminated surface water as far more immediate and serious than the long-term potential
damage wrought by arsenic.
"Bacteriological contamination remains the greatest threat to human health when
it comes to drinking water," said WHO-Cambodia representative Dr. Bill Piggot.
"This survey is not likely to change that fact."
Piggot's assessment of the relative risk of arsenic contamination of ground water
compared to the bacteriological risks of Cambodia's surface water was echoed by Inga
L Oleksy, Program Manager for Partners for Development (PFD) which has funded the
construction of more than 800 rural wells in Kratie and Stung Treng.
"We must assess the risk of a 20-year long term [exposure] risk of arsenic in
relation to the immediate impact of people using unsafe [surface] water sources,"
Oleksy said. "If people switch to surface water sources [due to a fear of potential
arsenic contamination], incidents of gastroenteritis would increase, which affects
the weakest, such as children under five and pregnant and breast-feeding mothers,
and would have a dramatic impact on Cambodia's infant mortality rate."
Successfully addressing the arsenic contamination threat depended upon linking the
matter to wider water quality issues, Iddings said.
"We hope to be able to fund a long-term public health campaign ... not just
focusing on arsenic but using it as a vehicle to educate the public on the importance
of personal and public hygiene and the need to keep water sources clean," he
According to Thuch, further testing to determine the extent of the arsenic contamination
and its possible human impact would begin in mid-September following the release
of the survey's final report and a series of meetings with concerned international
organizations, NGOs and related Government ministries.
"We hope to equip mobile teams with water testing kits that will work with village
development committees to share information on how to avoid [arsenic] contamination,"
PFD has already reacted to WHO confirmation that one of the contaminated water sources
in Kratie was a PFD-funded well.
PFD's Country Representative Michael Chommie told the Post that a pre-planned USAID-funded
water quality surveillance program of PFD's Kratie and Stung Treng wells "had
been moved up" as a result of the survey findings.
Jamie Meiklejohn, spokesperson for UNICEF-Cambodia, which has dug approximately 12,000
wells in Cambodia in the past decade, told the Post that the agency was awaiting
Cambodian government recommendations on how to handle the contamination.
Iddings stressed that numerous "mitigating factors" made the potential
health impact on communities adjacent to arsenic contaminated water sources difficult
"It depends on factors such as how the water is treated, filtered and settled
and whether people nearby actually are consuming the water," he said.
For communities found to be dependent on water sources judged to be seriously contaminated
with arsenic, Iddings said that abandonment of the water source might prove to the
most cost-effective solution to the problem.
"Technical [solutions] to arsenic contamination are either too expensive or
unsustainable at the household level," he said. "When no good alternative
exists, people would be guided to another [water] source in a worst-case scenario."
Thuch says a successful resolution of the arsenic contamination will remain the focus
of his tenure at the MRD.
"We are determined that Cam-bodia's rural population receive the same quality
of water enjoyed by people in the cities," he said. "There must be no more
double standard in water quality for the rural and urban populations."
Asia's arsenic crisis
- ARSENIC is a naturally occurring, water-soluble compound whose toxicity has
been noted for more than 4,000 years.
Although a dose of 125 grams is enough to kill an adult, arsenic is better known
for its chronic, long-term impact through water contamination.
Arsenicosis manifests itself after eight to 15 years of long-term consumption of
arsenic-laced water through symptoms that are often mistaken for leprosy: abnormal
black-brown pigmentation of the skin, thickening of the skin on palms and soles,
gangrene in the lower extremities and skin cancer. In the most serious of cases,
arsenic poisoning can result in liver and renal deficiencies.
Arsenic poisoning is difficult to detect and is treatable only in its early stages
by switching to arsenic-free water sources.
In Bangladesh the drilling of thousands of tubewells in the 1970s through arsenic-rich
alluvial soil has resulted in what scientists now describe as the worst case of mass-poisoning
in human history.
Twenty million of Bangladesh's 120 million people are now dependent on arsenic-contaminated
water sources and the number of arsenic-related deaths in the country is growing
exponentially each year.
"Bangladesh's experience [with] arsenic toxicity in drinking water and the suffering
of her people in the affected areas could be a valuable lesson for other developing
countries on the severity of public health hazard as a result of arsenic contamination
in groundwater," writes Bangkok-based water consultant T V Luong in a briefing
paper on the Bangladesh experience. "Early detection of arsenic contamination
and prevention of human exposure hold the key for the protection and control of [this]
public health hazard."