“Wash your hands with water and soap more often.” This reminder of basic hygiene practices has become a rallying call across TV, radio, and social media in Cambodia where COVID-19 cases have recently spiked since February of this year. Hand washing has been touted as one of the best ways for people to prevent spreading and contracting the virus, but what if a household isn’t connected to a reliable source of clean water?

In rural Cambodia, access to clean and piped fresh water is still low. As of 2020, less than 60 per cent of all villages in Cambodia were connected to reliable piped treated water. Access to clean water and sanitation is one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. According to the UN, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water, and two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 2 billion people around the world use a contaminated drinking water source, which is estimated to cause upwards of 485,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year. Even without the looming presence of a global pandemic, access to clean water and proper sanitation is essential to health, poverty reduction, and food security across the world.

Supporting Local Operators to Provide Piped Water

In Cambodia, outside of the larger towns and cities, piped water is delivered by private sector companies with a distribution licence from the Ministry for Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation (MISTI). As of 2020, there were over 350 of these companies operating in the country, each delivering clean treated water to a few thousand households. Most of these smaller water operators are family-run businesses and integral parts of the local community who, without access to reliable loans, front the costs for treatment plants and pipelines using family capital.

With a goal of providing piped treated fresh water to one million people in Cambodia’s rural villages, Investing in Infrastructure (3i), an Australian Government funded project implemented by Palladium, supports those private water operators in standardizing and expanding their piped water infrastructure.

In the past five years, 3i has helped establish, and expand the infrastructure of 80 private water operators from rural areas to provide piped treated water to their licensed communities, while at the same time empowering local business owners.

“Without 3i’s support, it would have taken me ages to supply piped treated water to entire communities,” notes Sak Sakhun, one of a few female water operators in Cambodia. After receiving her license to supply piped treated water in the Kratie province, she applied to work with 3i and co-invested with the program to upgrade her facilities and supply improved pressured piped water.

“People in my community had to spend a lot of time, especially in the dry season, fetching water from a far distance. Now, they only need to turn on tap to get clean water for use. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for people during the COVID-19 pandemic without easy to access piped water,” notes Sakhun.

Khut Sakorl is one of the beneficiaries of Sakhun’s work in the Kratie province. A mother of two, the connection to piped treated water two years ago has changed her life. “Our family doesn’t have a nearby source of water, we used to have to travel around 100 meters to the Mekong River to fetch water or buy expensive trucked or pumped water that could sometimes take three days to receive.”

Sakorl adds that her family has saved money, energy, and time, and is hopeful that she can now pay greater attention to her pig raising business, growing plants, and supporting her children’s education.

“My husband and I are very committed to sending my children to school to achieve their dreams,” she adds.

Connecting Communities Through Schools and Hospitals

As of 2020, 3i has enabled clean water connections to over 140 schools and 45 health centres in rural Cambodia, which has a multiplying effect on the many lives that come in contact with these places daily. More schools and health centres are to be connected with piped water under 3i’s COVID-19 support scheme.

One of these ‘connected’ schools, the La-et Primary School, provides piped treated water to over 600 students and teachers, which according to the school principal, Heng Vanath, has made operating under the extenuating circumstances around COVID-19, that much easier.

“Previously, students had to bring water with them from home to clean their hands. Can you imagine if we still had to do that in the context of COVID-19?” Vanath asks.

3i’s work has ensured that water operators have maintained their operations, providing constant water supplies, and giving people the ability to wash their hands throughout the pandemic in communities, schools, and hospitals, effectively reducing the risk of transmitting and contracting COVID-19.

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