PURE & SIMPLE
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