Access to clean water is a shared challenge. Projects such as the Singapore International Foundation’s Water For Life are making a dramatic difference to the lives of villagers in Cambodia — the difference between sickness and health, and helplessness and hope.
By Thusitha de Silva
Cambodian farmer Vatt Vann constantly worried that his family would fall ill from drinking unclean water. Three of his nine children had contracted typhoid and everyone in his family had suffered diarrhoea at one time or another. The pressure on Vann was immense. What little money he earned was drained to pay for medical treatment. This often meant less food on the table for his children, which put them in danger of malnourishment, making them more vulnerable to the sickening effects of tainted water.
The vicious cycle Vann faced is not uncommon in Cambodia, and one that many families in rural areas can identify with. He lives in Boss village of Dom Dek commune, about 35km from Siem Reap. There are more than 100,000 people living in the larger commune area, mostly farmers. Many lack access to clean water — polluted ponds and rivers are the only sources of water for cleaning, bathing, drinking and cooking.
Life improved for Vann and his family when he acquired a bio-sand filter, an adaptation of the traditional slow sand filter invented almost two centuries ago. Bio-sand filters are typically made of concrete or plastic, and filled with layers of filtration sand and gravel. The filtration sand develops a layer of micro-organisms at the top that helps to remove pathogens from the water that Vann and his family collect from the streams and ponds near their home.
The simple device has been a life saver. “Our bio-sand filter is so important to the 11 of us. After getting it, I have noticed that there is no more diarrhoea or typhoid happening to my children. It makes me believe that the filtered water is a medicine which can cure my children. I do not worry about my family getting sick,” said Vann.
Indeed, preliminary studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that the use of bio-sand filters significantly reduces the incidence of waterborne diseases in Cambodia, although a comprehensive study by an independent authority has yet to affirm these findings.
Volunteers and Sponsors
The bio-sand filter which Vann acquired was made by Singapore-based volunteers of SIF. It is the physical end-product of a project called Water for Life (WFL). Launched by SIF in August 2010, its target is villagers from the Dom Dek and Dan Run communes, situated 50km from Siem Reap, and villagers in the Kampong Speu province, 50km from Phnom Penh. The sponsors of the project are Deutsche Bank AG, Singapore branch, and Ngee Ann Development Pte. Ltd., while SIF’s project partners in Cambodia include Angkor Hospital for Children, Middletown Rhode Island Rotary Club and the Sao Sary Foundation.
For such humanitarian projects to be successful, it is crucial to have committed and dedicated sponsors. Annie Yeo, Director and Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (Asia) of Deutsche Bank AG, Singapore, explained how her bank got involved in the WFL project: “When we were scoping for a regional project with a partner here, there were a few possibilities. SIF, with its reputation and projects in the region — we thought it was a good fit for our CSR project partner.
“As we were looking for an environmental project, WFL was a no-brainer for us. When we first spoke to SIF, I thought the project proposal was presented to us methodologically and professionally. We have not looked back since.”
Targets, Health and Ownership
WFL had clear targets when it was launched. It aimed to make and install in homes 2,000 bio-sand filters for the Dam Dek and Dan Run communes. These filters would provide more
than 9,000 villagers with clean water. In tandem with provision of the filters, the project also aimed to conduct literacy classes for more than 1,000 villagers. SIF volunteers have been teaching them how to use the filters and keep them clean so that there’s no recontamination. The literacy classes also help equip villagers with proper hygiene practices and empower young Cambodians with general knowledge.
Now, almost two years after the launch, WFL is well on its way to meeting its goals. According to Geraldine Lim, Senior Executive, International Volunteerism, 1,850 bio-sand filters have been made so far, and some 9,250 villagers have benefited. Of all the bio-sand filters built, 1,350 for Dan Run were sponsored by Deutsche Bank, and 500 for Dom Dek were sponsored by Ngee Ann Development. Each bio-sand filter costs about US$50 to make. They are sold to villagers at a nominal price of US$7 apiece, “to give them a sense of ownership and responsibility for the filters,” noted Lim.
Apart from bio-sand filter construction and installation, SIF volunteers have also built a Village Health Volunteers’ link between villagers and the Dan Run Health Centre. This community work in health education has raised awareness on getting early medical treatment and almost doubled the number of children under five years old receiving medical attention at the Health Centre, from 2,578 to 4,241.
SIF reckons that there has been a 40% increase in pediatric health knowledge among Dan Run Health Centre staff, as well an increase in the community reached through health education promotion — from zero when the Water for Life project was launched in 2010, to more than 20,700 by December 2011.
The second phase of WFL, launched in Kampong Speu in August 2012, aims to add to these numbers. Over the next three years, a total of 1,400 filters will be installed in the homes of 8,400 villagers. The project also plans to build borehole wells, to provide easier access to a water source, and to install sanitation facilities including latrines.
Speaking at the launch in Kampong Speu, SIF Chairman Euleen Goh said, “Any Singaporean, no matter what their skills, can step forward if they just have 4-5 days of time. We believe that anyone coming will take away more than they can give. They will take away friendship, fulfillment and the knowledge that they made a difference to villagers and their lives. As a society, we can give and we have so much to give. We are finding Singaporeans looking for ways to give. These are the projects for them. Come forward.”
Lim has made many trips to Siem Reap since late 2010, leading about 125 Singapore volunteers in all. The trips are typically four to five days long, during which volunteers make the bio- sand filters themselves and install them in villagers’ homes. The going is tough. Volunteers can face difficult weather and environmental conditions like scorching heat and flooding — and sometimes both. In October last year, the visit of WFL volunteers from Vital, a shared services department under Singapore’s Ministry of Finance, coincided with heavy rainfall in the Upper Mekong River that brought knee-deep flood waters to Dan Run. While the flood didn’t recede during their visit, it didn’t dampen their enthusiasm to do their bit.
National University of Singapore undergraduate Teo Yong Sheng made a trip as an SIF volunteer in December last year. Just 23 years old, he is already an experienced volunteer, having been on similar missions in Vietnam and India.
“It’s not a shock for me to see living conditions such as those in Dan Run,” said Teo. “What makes the trips worthwhile is that the children are so happy to see us. There’s always a language barrier, so you have to use a lot of body language. Laughter also cuts through any language barrier,” he noted.
Teo, who is studying Engineering and Business, shares another insight into the hearts of the villagers. “Although their living conditions may look inhospitable compared to where we come from, they are proud of their country and proud to host foreigners like us. It’s an eye- opener in the context of the difficulties they face on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Meanwhile, Singaporeans can take some national pride from the impact of the WFL project in Cambodia. You need to look no further than Vann and his family’s heartfelt gratitude to see the project’s positive results. The success of WFL has given SIF the basic building blocks and portability to expand it, with additional projects in the pipeline.
Sand’s granular nature can trap pathogens about 10 micrometres or smaller and sand filters are one of the earliest water filtration techniques. There are two categories: a rapid gravity filtration system suitable for urban areas, or small slow trickling sand filters for rural households. While both give clear water, with the smallest bacteria about 200 nanometres in size and the smallest viruses about 25 nanometres, a second treatment, such as boiling the water, is necessary to ensure safe drinking water.
Sand filters are popular in rural and relief situations because they are inexpensive, quick to set up and filtration quality sand is easy to get. This simple technology still makes a huge difference to rural families today, as with the bio-sand filters used in SIF’s Water For Life programme in Cambodia.
By Zina Alam
“It was my first visit to Kampong Speu, my first time on site for the Water For Life project. My initial impressions of the Kbal Lach Trac village: small, idyllic. Beautifully painted houses built on high, high stilts. Palm trees. Simple dirt roads leading to numerous rice fields dotting the lands, where most of the community eke out their living. As you walk past the rows of homes, life seems peaceful. Families seek respite from the heat, lying in hammocks in the shade, children innocently play in pools of muddy water in the rice fields.
You certainly don’t see the sickness and disease that plague this small community, disrupting their health, their lives, and their ability to make a living.
I got to speak with villagers who’d been using the bio-sand filters for just three months so far — and the facts were astounding. For many, monthly salaries are a meagre US$25. Yet medicines can cost them more than double that amount. This means taking out loans while being unable to work. For people who already live hand-to-mouth, this is catastrophic. But three months of clean water has already signalled a significant change. One villager told me how he finally had enough money to send his little boy to school in the big city. For many, this is an opportunity out of the poverty trap.
Watching the Singapore volunteers was just as inspiring. They worked so well as a team, even though they’d never met before! They toiled beside the villagers, even though neither spoke each other’s language. There was frustration when the filter installation didn’t go right and had to be redone, and triumphant smiles when, finally, the last filter of the trip was finished.”
Alam, a staff member of the SIF, worked on the community launch of Water For Life (Kampong Speu) in August 2012.
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: The Singapore International Foundation filmed a short video on Water For Life, its volunteers and beneficiaries. Watch the video here.
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