Who Are Water for Cambodia?
Water for Cambodia is an organisation I came into contact with two years ago in Siem Reap. They manufacture water filters that produce clean drinking water from contaminated sources.
They aim to supply clean drinking water to rural communities who, otherwise, lack any access. At the same time, they run education programs for young women in the villages where they install their filters. Classes are offered in basic literacy, health and hygiene. Their classes include instructions for the proper use and maintenance of the biosand water filters. The filters and programs are designed to help prevent the spread of water-borne diseases.
I took the opportunity to revisit the Water for Cambodia initiative. This time I had the good fortune to travel with their team and witness the installation of four water filters in the Siem Reap province.
The biosand water filters that Water for Cambodia install are incredible. The design is wonderfully simple, comprising of a concrete column and a brass tap. The water is filtered through sand and gravel layers and takes a matter of minutes to produce clean drinking water. The filters are maintained by cleaning the gravel and stones every 2-6 months, depending on usage. The filters themselves, plus installation, costs $60 and will provide a large family with clean drinking water for many years.
The key to the effectiveness of the filter is the biological zone which naturally forms on the sand surface. This layer consumes harmful bacteria and other pathogens. As the water passes through the sand layer larger contaminants (e.g. parasites) are trapped and others (e.g. viruses, certain organic compounds) are attached to the particles of sand, a process called adsorption. In the lower layers of the filter where oxygen levels diminish organisms die a natural death.
According to a summary of laboratory and field studies for biosand filters conducted by the Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST.org) they remove the following from contaminated water:
- up to 98.5% of bacteria
- up to 99.9% of protozoa
- up to 95% of turbidity
- 90-95% of iron
After an early coffee at my hotel in the Wat Damnak area of Siem Reap, I took a tuk-tuk to the Water for Cambodia office which is just outside the city centre. I was greeted by Luigi, Massimo and other members of the installation team. Luigi Giani (Director of Operations) has been coordinating projects at Water for Cambodia with Massimo Maio (Laboratory Technical Advisor) for over 3 years.
It was all hands on deck as four concrete filter frames, materials and installation tools were loaded onto the truck in preparation for the day’s work.
The water filters installed that day were installed in a village approximately 30 kilometres from Siem Reap. It took over an hour to reach the village because the roads were unsurfaced, a stark contrast to the roads in the city we departed from.
Although most of the houses in the village had electricity almost all were still using unfiltered groundwater for everything, including drinking.
The communities who receive the filters are chosen by local people. In addition, they are put in areas which will benefit the maximum number of families.
After a bumpy hour or so in the truck we stopped at the first family home to receive a filter. Quickly the Water for Cambodia team unloaded the materials, found the mother of the family and discussed with her the location of the filter.
The first water filter was installed next to village well. This meant the water could be easily filtered. The column was levelled and the stones and grit were cleaned one last time. The filter was then left to settle for 3 weeks before it would produce perfectly clean drinking water.
The remaining 3 installations of the day were located at tactical distances from each other throughout the village. Thus, maximising the number of people to benefit from the filters. Each filter was installed close to a well or a borehole, the stones and gravel were washed and left to settle for 3 weeks.
The importance of the education provided by Water for Cambodia was stressed by Luigi and Massimo. Educating local people about health and hygiene is vital. For example, a lack of education would lead to the clean water produced by the filters to end up in dirty cups. Again, leading to the same problems of disease and illness as before.
The Water for Cambodia team sends teachers to the villages prior to each installation. This is to teach the villagers how to use and maintain the filters in addition to the basic rules of hygiene.
After each installation, there are three follow up visits in order to make checks and take water quality samples from the filtered water. With nearly 22,000 filters now installed and the number quickly growing, the follow-up work is a major task for the team.