Access to clean water is a fundamental right to a human being, but this right is not seen as basic as it should be in Cambodia. Cambodia’s geography suggests it should receive generally predictable rainfall and rich groundwater resources, but people in the rural areas are still struggling in accessing quality water sources. For example, only 5% of the rural population have access to piped water, compared to 55% of the urban population. The rural population still largely depends on rivers, ponds, and streams for water use, while 1.6m of 2.9m of urban dwellers do not have access to clean drinking water.
Water is an important ingredient to a meaningful life and development progress, but the number of people who can access clean water is still quite limited following Cambodia’s achievement of full peace in 1998, and rapid economic growth for two decades. The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) – a public enterprise – claimed to provide an uninterrupted clean water service to over 90% of the city of Phnom Penh 24 hours a day, while another figure by a civil society organization suggests otherwise. Particularly, by 2014, only 80% of urban residents can access to clean water while only half of that number of the rural population has access to clean water, reflecting a wide gap between the urban and rural population and the slow progress in this sector. Between 2008 and 2015, the National Institute of Statistics showed limited progress in the urban water supply with only a 4.2% improvement, from 75.8% in 2008 to 80% in 2015, while the urban water sanitation worsens by 7.5%, from 81.5% in 2008 to 74% in 2015. So, what are some of the factors that contribute to the slow improvement in the water sector? And how to improve the water supply infrastructure in the Kingdom?
The provision of clean water – not high on the priority list of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC). As a developing country, whose infrastructure was severely damaged during the civil wars and internal strife, Cambodia has focused on building its physical infrastructure and reducing poverty for the last two decades. Access to clean water, however, is not high on the priority list, meaning fewer resources are allocated to this area, particularly at the provincial level. Issues of corruption, infrastructure development, human capital and security are the top priorities for the RGC. All sectors cannot be a priority; otherwise, they are not categorized as the priority any longer.
Consequently, the water supply infrastructure has remained insufficient and in a poor condition for the last two decades. A waste treatment expert from the Royal University of Phnom Penh still warns against runoff water, which continues to contains heavy metals, coliform bacteria, nitrates and other toxic elements. In addition, the Asian Development Bank’s 2012 assessment pointed out that the urban water systems face various challenges, including the lack of strategy and planning, limited implementation capacity, insufficient monitoring, lack of private sector involvement, and the problematic coordination between ministries. For example, the supply of water is the responsibility of the PPWSA; the Ministry of Water Resources and Metrology (MOWRAM) manages water resources; the Ministry of Rural Development (MRD) is responsible for Rural Water Supply and Sanitation (RWSS), while the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy oversees supply of clean water to provincial capitals, as well as the regulations of the private sector involved in piped water system. This requires a strong commitment to working together, but as experience has shown there is a lack of a smooth and effective coordination between line ministries.
In addition, given the rapid population growth in the urban areas, tourism and expansion of the service sector, the water use per capita has increased, putting a significant pressure on the current water supply infrastructure. For instance, by 2020, the PPWSA estimated that 500,000 m3/day is needed to meet the increasing demands of water use. However, the production capacity of the PPWSA is still quite limited in recent years. On top of that, increasing water supply also leads to an increase in wastewater, so without a proper system to discharge or treat that wastewater, the water source will be affected in terms of quality and human health. For instance, without a proper water treatment plants for sewage, the wastewater makes its way into rivers and ground sources – the essential water sources of Cambodia.
(1) More investment in the water supply infrastructure is needed: recently, JICA has decided to help build and operate water infrastructure projects in 10 of Cambodia’s largest cities. The projects will be likely to include tap water systems and wastewater treatment plants, which are most needed in the Kingdom. Apart from this great news, more investment is still needed, particularly through more participation from the private sector to invest in water, sanitation, and hygiene improvements in the country. Before that can take place, the government has a role to play which is to establish effective regulatory mechanisms to create a competitive investment climate for the private sector to take part. In addition, the RGC needs to intensify the efforts in improving the access to safe water in urban and rural areas in collaboration with development partners, such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and JICA because of the government budget constraint.
(2) Proper planning, implementation capacity, and coordination are still needed: the good governance remains imperative because only policies and regulatory mechanisms per se are far from being sufficient to bring about accelerated progress in the water sector. This is because the implementation and law enforcement capacity is often limited. It is important that the RGC, along with the development partners both foreign donors and private sector, enhance national planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation to ensure an effective and efficient resource allocation. For example, there is a need to build the capacity of the government officials to collect and share the right figures on the number of people accessing water and sanitation services, particularly those in the marginalized and vulnerable groups.
(3) Education on water use is also required: People in the country lack the ability to treat and store abundant rainfall, not to mention the ability to dispose of wastewater. The water supply infrastructure per se is not adequate because people need the ability to filter the water to remove parasites or microbial from the same water before it is usable and drinkable. This requires the water facilities to treat water for sanitation and hygiene so that waterborne diseases can be prevented. Therefore, an educational awareness on safe water consumption is still significant. This is in line with the UNICEF’s shift of focus from providing “hardware” water supply infrastructure to a more comprehensive approach that also includes the soft part of water supply – the promotion of behavior change and supportive policies and institutions. Thus, it is a long-term perspective that the communities need to know how to effectively manage their own facilities and demand for high-quality services either from the government, civil society organizations and the private service providers.