Water, water everywhere: Phnom Penh a clean water success story

by Craig and Marc Kielburger

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.

It worked. The city's poorest neighbourhoods paid the least, helped by subsidized payment plans, while those who consumed the most, paid as such. The water authority today provides clean water to almost all the residents in Phnom Penh, a remarkable achievement.

In Canada today, we need innovative solutions. There are more than 100 First Nations communities that don't have access to safe drinking water, according to Health Canada. An estimated 100 people die every year from tainted water and more than 1,000 communities are under boil-water advisories. In the last decade, these numbers have hardly changed.

We raise a glass to applaud the successes in Phnom Penh. Other countries could take valuable lessons from Chan, who tackled corruption and low staff morale, while also making people understand the value and cost of fresh water.

Marc and Craig Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Their column appears Mondays online at thestar.com/globalvoices.