Friday - - Society -

Wa­ter gushes on to the cor­ru­gated iron roof of the stilted wooden home, then pours down to the ground in tor­rents. Dark grey sat­u­rated clouds roll over­head, un­leash­ing a del­uge on the sway­ing palm trees of Kam­pong Chh­nang Prov­ince, their green spiny leaves sigh­ing un­der the heavy load.

Hap­haz­ard pud­dles form rapidly, as the red pock-marked ground strug­gles to di­gest the lat­est down­pour, belch­ing out small brown rivulets that weave hur­riedly to the near­est tur­bid river.

This is Cam­bo­dian rain, and the ves­sels into which it falls and ul­ti­mately stag­nates will be­come, for the vast ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion, the equiv­a­lent of aWestern tap.

Wa­ter here may be in abun­dance, but it re­mains one of the big­gest killers in the coun­try, and is in part re­spon­si­ble for Cam­bo­dia’s child-mor­tal­ity cri­sis.

Cam­bo­dia is one of South East Asia’s poor­est coun­tries, and de­spite im­prove­ments in re­cent years, its in­fant-mor­tal­ity rate is still in the worst 10 per cent world­wide. Ac­cord­ing to lat­est fig­ures from The­World Fact­book by the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency (CIA), there are as many as 57 fa­tal­i­ties out of ev­ery 1,000 live births. The deaths are largely at­trib­uted to the con­tam­i­nated wa­ter and poor san­i­ta­tion.

Yet in this pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion where paddy fields glis­ten in the af­ter­noon sun and trav­ellers flock to float­ing vil­lages, it’s hard to be­lieve that Cam­bo­dia is over­whelmed by a wa­ter catas­tro­phe along with poverty, mal­nour­ish­ment and dis­ease.

“The im­agery that peo­ple are used to when you talk about a wa­ter cri­sis is cracked fields where peo­ple have to walk three hours to get wa­ter, as in Ethiopia and Kenya,” says Stephen Chee from lo­cally based NGO Sa­mar­i­tan’s Purse. “In Cam­bo­dia the prob­lem is not re­ally the ac­cess to wa­ter, it’s the poor qual­ity. There is a lot of wa­ter for most of the year, but it’s just not safe to drink.”

In this mainly ru­ral coun­try, 60 per cent of the 14.5 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion has no, or very limited, ac­cess to clean wa­ter, and the CIA rates res­i­dents as be­ing at a “very high” risk of con­tract­ing wa­ter-re­lated dis­eases.

Homes out­side the main cities are not equipped with pipes, taps or toi­lets, and res­i­dents of­ten wash, clean, defe­cate in and drink from the same wa­ter source.

Death by wa­ter

Run­ning wa­ter is sim­ply un­heard of in ru­ral Cam­bo­dia. In­stead vil­lagers gather wa­ter from murky lakes and rivers, and hand-dug or drilled wells where the wa­ter is highly con­tam­i­nated. Aside from cholera and ty­phoid, one of the most com­mon af­flic­tions from drink­ing un­safe wa­ter is di­ar­rhoea, which when left un­treated can cause de­hy­dra­tion and ul­ti­mately death.

Ba­bies in re­mote vil­lages, where it is com­mon prac­tice for non-breast­feed­ing mothers to mix baby for­mula with wa­ter from a par­a­site-rid­dled well, are at par­tic­u­larly high risk. Most fam­i­lies have lit­tle idea that drink­ing a glass of murky, brown wa­ter taken from a river bub­bling with filth and de­bris can have neg­a­tive health con­se­quences.

Ac­cord­ing to the United States Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment (Usaid) 45 per cent of in­fant fa­tal­i­ties among ba­bies younger than a month old in Cam­bo­dia are caused by di­ar­rhoea. Poverty and high med­i­cal bills of­ten mean fam­i­lies – many of whom sur­vive on less

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