Calgary development model aids Cambodians
Water-wise training improves conditions
KAMPONG THOM, CAMBODIA — Considering that everybody poops, one would think the process would be pretty standard worldwide.
Participants at a latrine-building workshop in rural Cambodia at the end of May learned that wasn’t the case. One of their options: Should the cement base of the outhouse be flat or shaped like a dome?
Since Southeast Asians are washers (not wipers) they tend to prefer a flat base. Domes just create a mess. That’s exactly the sort of context-specific knowledge the Calgary-based Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) hopes to bring to its training workshops.
“We can never do this job as well as (local trainers) can,” said Andrew Appell, an international technical adviser from CAWST who helped run the course. “They just take it and run with it.”
CAWST has eight Water Expertise and Training (WET) Centres worldwide. Researchers develop course material for workshops, which are delivered (with assistance) by a partner organization. It estimates 7.5 million people in 63 countries benefit from improved water or sanitation as a result of its work.
“We consider ourselves trainers of trainers. So the whole point is this exponential growth of knowledge,” said Appell.
Rather than donating infrastructure like wells, water filters or latrines, CAWST’s unique development model focuses exclusively on capacity-building.
“(Knowledge is) always likely to spread beyond the initial implementation. You can’t do that with hardware; it’s one and done,” he said.
Sor Lina hopes to take what she learned at the five-day course and apply it to her projects with the Rural Development Association in surrounding Kampong Thom province.
“People here don’t have very much education about WASH (water and sanitation hygiene),” she said through an interpreter. “As you can see, there are proper ways to do these things.
“If the people have better knowledge they will not get sick.”
Poor hygiene practices help keep many in the developing world in poverty. In Cambodia, 65 per cent of the population practises “open defecation,” a sanitized term for going wherever nature calls. Endless sickness is the result. It prevents people from going to work or school and it leaves them with costly medical bills in a country where the average annual salary is only about $750.
“In our past, people didn’t realize open defecation could cause a problem,” said Ung Kuntear, manager of Cambodia’s WET Centre. “We are trying to transfer the knowledge and skills so they can transform their life.”
Cambodia’s government wants every household to have a toilet by 2025 (though it appears to be relying entirely on NGOs to get it done). Less than 30 per cent have one now. It’s an ambitious goal for WASH campaigners in the country. The WET Centre is still in its startup stage, but eventually it will be independent.
“We’re providing capacity building on a long-term basis, as long as it takes,” said Appell.
This focus on training has a number of advantages over direct donations. Building a latrine for a family without imparting key knowledge falls into a common trap. Nobody knows how to maintain the project or sees the point in the practice, so it falls into disrepair and disuse. Researchers at Cranfield University identify CAWST as the only WASH organization working exclusively on capacity building. Its novel approach earned it a Nonprofit Innovation Award from the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations in 2011 and a place as one of Tides Canada’s top 10 change makers in the same year.
“It has become clear that the focus on infrastructure has failed to deliver the desired results,” said CAWST CEO Shauna Curry. “Over the past decade, CAWST has proven that by building knowledge and skills of local organizations, we can have a much greater reach and sustained impact.”
CAWST’s is truly a Calgaryborn model. Founder Camille Dow Baker worked in the oil and gas industry until she went back to school at the University of Calgary. There she met Dr. David Manz, who had recently developed the biosand filter, a household device that uses sand and gravel to clean drinking water. Baker’s master’s thesis on how to distribute the product was the conceptualization of what would become CAWST in 2001, and the filters remain CAWST’s flagship workshop around the world.
Now it is moving into a new office at the south edge of the airport, thankful for the city’s continued support.
“From the beginning, Calgarians have supported our pioneering approach by investing their time, expertise and dollars,” said Curry. “Calgarians have enabled us to take risks, be entrepreneurial and become the global centre of expertise that we are today.”
Participants place flash cards in order of improved sanitation conditions at a latrine-building workshop in Kampong Thom, Cambodia.