Not all toilets are created equal
Our ImpactStoriesNot all toilets are created equal

This World Toilet Day we are talking about toilets for the millions of people who live in flood prone, mountainous and remote areas – challenging environments where standard sanitation systems don’t work.

Without access to sanitation, millions of people still practice open defecation, leaving them vulnerable to disease and pollution. We believe everyone has the right to access a toilet, and in Cambodia our national staff like Piseth Kim, train and mentor local engineers and enterprises to design appropriate sanitation, and advocate for SCE policies; helping to make SDG6 a reality.

“I was born in about 50km from Phnom Penh. It’s not as crowded as Phnom Penh and people earn a living by farming. There are a lot of mountains and valleys in this area and it can be a difficult place to live,” says Piseth Kim a lead facilitator with EWB’s Sanitation in Challenging Environments (SCE) program in Cambodia. “My Bachelors degree is in Water Resource Engineering, and afterwards I did a Masters in Environmental Engineering. Cambodia has the biggest freshwater area in South East Asia, but still we can’t manage it properly. The first thing I can do now is to bring all I have learned into my working environment.”

Piseth chats with a local mason about trialling his ATEC* Biodigester system

Home to millions of people the fertile agricultural basin around the Tonle Sap and Mekong river is the largest freshwater system in South East Asia, and is seasonally inundated by flood waters. The Tonle Sap also has many over-water communities who live on the lake and depend on it for their livelihoods, but there is no sanitation infrastructure provided for them. “Living without proper sanitation on the Tonle Sap causes water pollution,” says Piseth “which affects the health of these people, who use the water for drinking and as a food source.”  A quarter of Cambodia’s population, approximately four million people do not have access to appropriate sanitation as they live in challenging environments affected by flooding, high ground water and drought. Piseth is working on the development of appropriate sanitation technologies for these households. 

“I feel bad because I have been to other countries where they don't have to care about sanitation anymore because it is already in place, but on the Tonle Sap they don’t even know that they should care about it, that it is their basic right to have access to appropriate sanitation. I want to change this," says Piseth "I am working on sanitation now to bring proper technology and solutions to people who live in flood prone communities. I think the job I am doing can contribute a small part of the solution.” 

By focussing on technologies that are not only appropriate but also affordable and can be successfully marketed to communities, EWB aims to build a sustainable sanitation market serving these ‘last mile’ customers. In the past 12 months Piseth and the SCE team have helped to trial and evaluate four innovative and custom designed technologies. These include the HandyPod, a floating sanitation system for over-water households, developed with Wetlands Work!; the SaTo pan with RainWater Cambodia, suitable for communities prone to drought; the ATEC* Biodigester, which produces clean biogas for cooking and lighting from a sanitation management system suitable for flood-prone communities, and the 3C pit latrine with iDE, a sanitation entrepreneurship hub.

“One of our challenges is to get people to try something new,” Says Piseth “We need to use sanitation marketing to promote sanitation technologies.” Systemic behaviour change and market dynamics are complex areas, so EWB collaborate with local partners and government institutions to positively influence policies and approaches.  “We work closely with the government and with other WASH organisations to advocate for Sanitation in Challenging Environments,” explains Piseth “because the government are trying to achieve 100% sanitation coverage by 2025, in a country where millions live in challenging environments.”

The SCE team have drafted SCE guiding principles with the Cambodian Ministry of Rural Development, an important step towards embedding good national policies. “I feel happy that in this job I can produce something that is beneficial for Cambodians.’’ says Piseth.

“At a national level advocating, facilitating and working with the government sector is hard. But our goal as EWB is that everyone has access to appropriate sanitation technology and knowledge, so this is one of the important ways to deal with this issue. We are the driving force in Cambodia bringing attention to Sanitation in Challenging Environments.”

Piseth is feeling positive about the future of appropriate sanitation in Cambodia and his important role in developing it. “I am proud of myself to have been given the opportunity and the responsibility to lead other SCE field professionals. My being Cambodian is important. We need to develop our own engineering resources here and not depend on expats to come over and solve our problems for us. Having local staff and building local capacity is the most sustainable strategy.”

EWB employs 4 national staff like Piseth, and works with more than 10 local community partners in Cambodia, Timor Leste and Vanuatu, building local skills for a stronger national engineering sector.

This program is supported by ANCP and Australia Aid.

Written by Emma Boles.