Water as human right hasn\’t reached rural Cambodia, CWS tells Geneva consultation


Cambodia has made strides over the past two decades in providing clean water and sanitation to its urban areas. But those gains have yet to reach the majority of rural Cambodians, according to Cambodian humanitarian agency water program specialist Mao Sophal.

Mao, a senior staff member for Church World Service in Cambodia, spoke on the issue of affordability of clean water and sanitation for Cambodia\’s poorest, during a consultation in Geneva between international civil society representatives and Catarina de Albuquerque, United Nations independent expert on issues of access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right.

Mao and Agneta Dau Valler, Country Representative for CWS in Vietnam and Cambodia, attended the consultation after the World Water Week summit in Sweden, where this year\’s Stockholm Industry Water Award was given to the Phnom Penh Water Supply authority for its achievement in providing water to nearly 90% of the city\’s population.

\”We applaud Cambodia\’s advances in making clean water accessible to so many more people in Phnom Penh,\” said Dau Valler. \”However, the situation is still completely different in the countryside.\”

In rural Cambodia — where 80 percent of the country\’s population resides — UNICEF estimates that only 16 percent of people have access to adequate sanitation and 65 percent to safe water.

The overall lack of clean water and sanitation is costing Cambodia around half a billion dollars every year in poor health and loss of tourism.

But for clean water and sanitation to become a reality for all in Cambodia and the rest of the world\’s poorest countries, water and sanitation infrastructure and management also have to be accessible and affordable to all, says CWS\’s Mao.

\”There also has to be equal focus on civil society\’s advocacy at government and world body levels and cooperative engagement with local and regional authorities,\” she said.

Mao was one of 19 civil society panelists from developing countries and from the U.S. selected from some 50 applicants to present at the Geneva consultation, based on their responses to de Albuquerque\’s questionnaire on good practices in water, sanitation and human rights programs.

In her presentation, Mao said that CWS has focused its sustainable development work in rural Cambodia in great part to align with the country\’s stated rural water and sanitation strategy — that, by 2025, every person in rural communities will have \”sustained access to safe water supply and sanitation services\” and will be living in \”a hygienic environment.\”

Specifically, CWS aims to help the \”poorest of the poor\” in rural Cambodia.

To realize that goal, CWS had to develop a valid, consistent and inclusive method of \”ranking wealth\” among residents, so communities can identify who will receive clean water and sanitation facilities and training in the villages CWS serves in Svay Rieng, Kompong Thom and remote Preah Vihear Provinces.

Mao said the agency\’s team follows the humanitarian \”do no harm\” approach, with a participatory appraisal process in each village that engages district and provincial authorities, village chiefs, commune development leaders and water user groups to establish their own criteria to identify residents as \”poorest of the poor,\” \”poor\” or \”better-off poor.\”

In one village, \”better-off poor\” families may be identified as having a wooden house with a zinc roof, a certain number of draft and livestock animals, a small amount of land, agricultural income sources, and just enough food to make it through the year, and \”poorest of the poor\” families as having no draft or livestock animals beyond a few poultry, no land, no income source beyond their own labor, living in a tiny cabin, and insufficient food seven to ten months of the year.

Families selected for assistance receive priority facilities such as upgraded wells, latrines, or bio-sand water filters for safe drinking water.

To promote ownership, CWS said the Cambodian beneficiaries contribute labor and resources as possible and appropriate to their situations. The program also provides water and sanitation resources for health centers, commune offices and primary schools.

Mao said the CWS approach requires a lot of staff time and energy, but the benefits have been significant. Communities served now experience less waterborne disease, diarrhea is rare, and households, schools and community centers have improved sanitation and hygiene. With community guidance, households are assisted in growing and maintaining productive home gardens for better food supply and income-generation.

She said the process promotes the human right to water and sanitation among community members and authorities, promotes community solidarity, accountability and honesty, and empowers women in decision-making.

On July 28, the UN General Assembly approved an historic non-binding resolution recognizing \”the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.\” On Monday, de Albuquerque told the Geneva civil society gathering that her mandate from the UN is to clarify the content of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation and to make recommendations that could help reach Millennium Development Goals, particularly the goal relating to safe water and sanitation.

As UN water expert, de Albuquerque has held related consultations with governments, private sector leaders and other stakeholders.

Worldwide, an estimated 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water, more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation, and some 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year from water- and sanitation-related diseases.