Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Why water and sanitation systems are vital for Cambodia’s economy

Why water and sanitation systems are vital for Cambodia’s economy

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A woman carries water from the Mekong river in Phnom Penh. Globally, there are still 2.2 billion people without access to safe drinking water and 4.2 billion who don’t have access to safely managed sanitation. AFP

Why water and sanitation systems are vital for Cambodia’s economy

Water and sanitation are critically important to the health and survival of Cambodia’s communities. But, do our decision-makers adequately prioritise and invest in the sector? Despite improvements in our water and sanitation systems, we must consider the costs of failing to serve so many people with the most basic but crucial of services.

Globally, there are still 2.2 billion people without access to safe drinking water and 4.2 billion who don’t have access to safely managed sanitation. Over six million Cambodian homes do not have access to basic sanitation, and almost three quarters of Cambodians do not have access to safely-managed water services, according to a 2017 WHO/UNICEF report based on national data.

Despite millions of people gaining access to a toilet since 2000, five million still suffer the indignity of defecating in fields or other places outside. This continues to be a real challenge, as human waste near waterways and houses spreads diseases quickly and puts children and their families at risk.

However, it is not all bad news. Cambodia has set an ambitious goal of eliminating open defecation by 2025, five years ahead of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target.

But for real progress to be made, investments need to grow – by three times, to an annual $114 billion, according to the World Bank – to meet the global scale of the challenge. In Cambodia alone, an estimated investment of $898.4 million will be required over five years. However, this is not a plea for charity, this is a wake-up call.

The current global water and sanitation crisis is a story of colossal, rapidly increasing, unmet demand leading to colossal, rapidly increasing costs. Meeting SDG 6 – water and sanitation for all by 2030 – is not a burden but a massive opportunity.

To find concrete solutions to the financing gap, the partnership Sanitation and Water for All – a global platform for achieving the WASH-related targets of the SDGs – is organising three Regional Finance Ministers’ Meetings in November and December. The ministers will focus on the opportunity for economic growth and sustainable development, through the expansion of water and sanitation services.

Many countries are already implementing some of these measurements and seeing the immediate advantages. One such measurement from Cambodia became an international success story. The government has recently developed and launched a ‘National Action Plan for Rural Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene’ for 2019-2023. This marks a stepping stone for Cambodia’s SDG 6 ambitions and its impact was recognised in a Handbook for Ministers of Finance published by Sanitation and Water for All.

With the right level of investment, benefits could include an estimated 1.5 per cent growth in gross domestic product, and a $4.30 return for every dollar invested. This is due to the likely reduced healthcare costs and potential for increased productivity. That’s a rate of return that any investor would wish for.

The cost of not investing

Affordable, reliable, easily accessible water and sanitation services prevent thousands of children from preventable diseases, such as diarrhea and cholera. Healthier children absorb nutrients properly, develop stronger brains and bodies, get better school results, and end up making a fuller contribution to society. And we have seen how quickly a pandemic like Covid-19 can spread when people are not able to wash their hands with water and soap.

Without further investment, girls and women are forced to continue the time-consuming, back-breaking work of fetching water, and are left exposed to the indignity and dangers of going to the toilet in fields and streets. Water and sanitation services in schools and workplaces have the power to ensure girls and women can manage their personal hygiene while not missing out on obtaining an education or earning an income.

Adequate investment would reduce disease burden and epidemic risks, and slow down fast-moving killers such as cholera. Improved hygiene – through water and soap – is critical in the fight against Covid-19, for example. Yet one in four – 24 per cent – of health care facilities lack basic water services, one in 10 – 10 per cent – have no sanitation service, and one in three – 32 per cent – lack hand hygiene facilities at points of care. Data has shown that even where there is adequate WASH facilities, frontline health care workers can be 12 times more likely to test positive for Covid-19 compared with individuals in the general community.

Unless further investments are made, the level of workforce productivity will be capped. An estimated three out of four jobs that make up the global workforce are either heavily or moderately dependent on water. But, access to water and sanitation can also free up time that would otherwise be spent collecting water. UN-Water estimates that improved sanitation gives every household an additional 1,000 hours a year to work, study, care for children, and so on. Women’s productivity is particularly affected, as they are the main caretakers and manager and users of water.

The bottom line is that economic growth rests on improving educational achievement and public health – two things that are impossible without access to WASH.

The role of finance decision-makers

None of this is news. Since the early days of the industrial revolution, we have known the transformative economic and social benefits of access to WASH, and the horrific consequences of inaction.

If Cambodia fails to help prioritise water and sanitation, the consequences could affect societies for generations. Financial decision-makers must create an enabling environment by investing in institutions and people, and mobilising new sources of finance, such as taxes, tariffs, transfers, or repayable finance.

In the end, well-resourced, well-run WASH systems are catalysts for progress in every sector from gender, food, and education, to health, industry, and the environment.

By nature of their work, finance ministers must use evidence to make smart decisions that will help their countries flourish. In the case of WASH, the evidence is clear: continuing to neglect these services will only continue to stunt the growth of our economies, populations, and societies.

Catarina de Albuquerque is the CEO of Sanitation and Water for All partnership


  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Phnom Penh curfew starts today

    A two-week curfew from 8pm to 5am starts today in Phnom Penh, a day after a sub-decree detailing administrative measures to contain Covid-19 was issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Travelling in Phnom Penh is temporally banned between 8pm and 5am,” said Phnom Penh governor

  • Phnom Penh placed in two-week lockdown

    The government has decided to place Phnom Penh in lockdown for two weeks, effective April 14 midnight through April 28, as Cambodia continues to grapple with the ongoing community outbreak of Covid-19, which has seen no sign of subsiding. According to a directive signed by Prime Minister

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Cambodia gears up for muted New Year festival

    The recent curfew and restrictions imposed in the capital and other Covid-19 hotspots were intended to break the chain of transmission, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said as municipal and provincial authorities issued new directives banning certain activities during the upcoming Khmer New Year

  • Culture ministry: Take Tuol Sleng photos down, or else

    The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has told Irish photographer Matt Loughrey to take down the photos of Khmer Rouge victims at Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum which he allegedly colourised and altered to show them smiling. The ministry said Loughrey's work is unacceptable, affecting