Water, water everywhere: Phnom Penh a clean water success story
By Craig and Marc Kielburger, Toronto Star, June 13, 2011
It’s a sweet and increasingly scarce sound. The sound of rushing, clean water as it sloshes out of the tap.
Across the globe, about one in eight people lack access to safe water, according to the United Nations. Every week, an estimated 42,000 people die from diseases related to low-quality drinking water and water-borne diseases.
In our own experiences doing development work, we have seen people struggle to access clean water; walking for hours to the nearest clean water source; lining up all day at pumps or to buy small plastic bags of water sold for staggeringly high prices. People in slums often pay five to 10 times more per litre of water than wealthy people with water piped into their homes living in the same city.
We have also faced our own challenges in finding clean water when travelling abroad — even adding a few drops of bleach to our drinking water. We thought it was a great idea, that is, until our mom found out and made us promise to stop.
Despite the challenges the world faces in providing clean water, there are success stories. The city of Phnom Penh is one of them.
Of the 1.7 million residents in Cambodia’s capital, 92 per cent of them have access to safe, clean drinking water today thanks to the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) and its director — Ek Sonn Chan.
As a young engineering graduate, Chan lost his family to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. He survived working as a farmer until 1979 when he landed a government job in Phnom Penh. By 1993, he’d risen to become head of the city’s water supply authority. It was a daunting challenge. Not just because Chan had to provide clean water to a country that had recently emerged from close to two decades of civil war, but also because the water system was in ruin.
Barely a quarter of the city’s population had access to water. There were no blueprints for the system, an entanglement of ancient French pipes. None of the engineers who knew about the system had survived the war.
“The distribution was abandoned,” he said in an interview. “There were no technicians.”
Chan had inherited a near-impossible challenge when he took over in the early 1990s. He soon made changes, according to a 2010 PPWSA report. Chan and his team laid down 1,500 km of new pipelines and set about stamping out corruption. He chased down those who wouldn’t pay for the water — including his own employees, as well other government officials.
Early on, Chan visited one Cambodian general to demand the army start paying for water. The general grew angry, held a gun to Chan’s head, and still refused to pay. Chan returned with a group of journalists. Once again, Chan ended up with a gun pointed at his head. His solution? He cut off the water supply. The army paid its dues.
Chan also culled a significant number of his employees, and created a merit-based reward system, according to a 2010 report by the PPWSA. He replaced anyone guilty of any form of corruption.
“My first reform here was in terms of human resources. We had to try to bring on qualified young staff who really wanted to work,” he said. “We work together as a family, as a team.”
With help from his staff, he installed thousands of water meters and a computerized billing system. His teams went door-to-door convincing Cambodians that installing water meters and paying a small price for water meant that they would save money and be healthier in the long run.
Of course, we commend Chan, and all the other Chan's everywhere who are working assiduously to bring clean water to those whose access is denied, interrupted, unavailable, or blocked.
This is one of the principal issues, causes, dangers of the globe for the foreseeable future...and while the ice caps melt leaving both floods in the valleys and less reserve on the caps themselves, politicians and health monitors seem under the radar at best, or non-existent.
And with naysayers like Rush Limbaugh, in the U.S. and the Harper Conservatives in Canada, not paying even lip service to climate change and global warming, but more seriously even denying the issue completely, many people who would otherwise be receptive to the science, are turned off, become naysayers themselves and governments, consequently are not forced to change their approach.
The people of Canada are heirs to one of the largest fresh-water sources in the world; and yet the issue of clean water, and its future is barely covered in national media. When a tanker with spent nuclear rods plies the waters of the Great Lakes, there is a collective yawn from most, except a few mayors, like the one in Sarnia, past whose city the boat sails.
While everyone is amazed at the persistence and the courage of the Chan in the Kielbergers' story, where are the Canadian equivalents of Chan? What can the Canadian public do to bring this issue to the front pages and out of the closet?