Cambodia – a life for all with clean water…..

One of the more impressive organisations I have observed whilst studying development economics is Sustainable Cambodia.  Sustainable Cambodia is an empowerment organisation, which works with the families of rural Cambodian villages to help them achieve sustainability and self-sufficiency through wells, irrigation systems, schools, training and empowerment (1).  I was drawn to Sustainable Cambodia and the work undertaken as it resonated with my personal experiences in Cambodia.


Whilst viewing the Sustainable Cambodia website, I simultaneously researched some basic information on Cambodia to help me put the information in perspective.  Cambodia has a population of 14.8 million people, 80% (11.84 million) of which live in rural areas (2).  The country has a human development index rating of 138, out of 187 countries and I was very surprised to discover that this ranking rates as ‘medium development’ (3), as I would not have expected this from my humanitarian experiences in the country.  Life expectancy is approximately 71 years, up from 37.8 years in 1980 at the close of the Pol Pot reign (3).  I found this information encouraging, however I do acknowledge that this country is still suffering in the aftermath of this genocide.  The World Bank estimates GDP at US$14.06 billion in 2012 with GNI per capita in PPP term is $2,095 (2).  In 2011, 20.5% of the population was living below the poverty line, down from 50.1% in 2007 and 62% of the rural population have access to clean water (2). Let’s do the math’s – there are still approximately 4.5 million rural Cambodians (that’s almost the entire population on Melbourne) without access to water, clearly demonstrating that the work Sustainable Cambodia undertakes in rural areas is important and necessary to improve the quality of life. 


Since 2004, Sustainable Cambodia’s unique empowerment model has assisted tens of thousands of Cambodian men, women and children to rebuild their lives.  The organisations head office is in the United States however what I liked about this organisation was that there was a local office in the Pursat province (north west Cambodia) where the organisation supports rural villages.  Our learnings and experience in the development field tells us that organisations are far more successful in the field when they can engage with a community at the grass roots level as opposed from an office many thousands of kilometers away.  I was also pleased to discover that organisation only employed native Cambodians; all international resources are unpaid volunteers.  This strategy assists in keeping the organisations overheads at less than 3%, promotes local job opportunities and allows the majority of funding to be used to develop rural village families and communities.  This information resonated with my development discourse learning where community programs lead by local people are generally more successful.


Sustainable Cambodia, works with villages that have no source of clean drinking water. Without access to clean water, communities rely on sourcing dirty water from scum-covered nearby retaining ponds, or carrying water in plastic containers from far-away rivers – just as I had seen first hand in Cambodia.    I asked myself the question – could I imagine a life where access to clean water was a constant struggle and a constant risk?  The answer is simply no and I struggle to accept that this should be acceptable for many millions of people in Cambodia and around the globe. 


It was interesting to learn that Sustainable Cambodia assists communities to gain access to clean water in varied ways, through installing water wells, rainwater harvesting and through bio-sand filters.  Sustainable Cambodia empowers the village families to choose their own water well. The village development committee, Sustainable Cambodia staff and well drillers then determine a suitable location for the well. The villagers themselves dig the initial well pit, usually around 20 to 30 feet deep, using hand tools.  The well driller will then drill a conventional deep-water well through the bottom of the pit and once complete the village development committee contracts with a particular family for the maintenance of each well.


What I liked about this process was that the village community is engaged and empowered from the initial process, they choose the well, assist with the determining the well location, they assist with building the well and they are responsible for maintaining their new asset.  In development discourse we read and learn time and time again that to ensure sustainability and success in a project, it is imperative that the individual, family or community are involved from the project inception, that they are given ownership and the tools to ensure that the project is sustainable. 


Through Sustainable Cambodia, a well can cost US$1,200, for a multi-purpose well to US$2,200 for a deep-water well.  This includes supplies, training and oversight to ensure the village is maintaining the wells.  Each well will service five to 15 families, dependent upon the type of well and the proximity of the families.  It was pleasing to read that Sustainable Cambodia acknowledges that the village requires training and education to maintain their new asset, without this investment it would be certain that the functionality of the well would cease over time. 


In taking a moment to apply these figures in an economic context, I calculated that a small financial investment (in terms of Western currency) CAN significantly improve the lives of a community, even save lives.   An investment of just US$90 to US$440 can significantly improve the lives of a Cambodian family living in poverty and without access to water.   I broke this figure down again in AUD, for approximately AUS$1.25 per day over a 12 months period an individual could support a family and provide them access to clean water.


We know that lives can change when clean water becomes available to a community.  Sickness and disease is dramatically reduced. Water is not only available for consumption, thus aiding in reducing hunger and malnutrition, it can be used to grow produce or even to fish in ponds.  Children who previously worked for hour’s everyday transporting water have the opportunity to attend school regularly.  The insight (and personal relief) for me was to know that there are organisations in the development field that implement their work based on sound development and economic theories and that these DO have a positive impact on lives.  This exercise reinforced my feelings that a small investment of time and money can have a life-changing outcome and has encouraged me to continue to learn more about economics and development in Cambodia.  After all, Cambodia is a country close to my heart…..