An Overview of Water Quality Issues in Cambodia
Cambodia is amongst the poorest countries in the world, ranking 130 of 175 countries in the 2002 Human Development Index, as reported by the United Nations (www.un.org.kh/rcsystem/). The GDP per capita in 2002 was US$275 (www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2732pr.htm). Life expectancy for men is around 54 and for women is 59, which reflects various factors, including high infant mortality rate and low living standards. Mortality due to waterborne diseases in Cambodia is high and is a situation that could be improved through better sanitary conditions and education. Cambodia also faces challenges related to population demographics (43% of the population is aged 15 or less) and the decimation of the skilled/educated sector of society during the Khmer Rouge period of 1975-79 (Gottesman, 2003). Estimates of the genocide vary, but Kiernan (1999) suggested about 1.67 million people, or 21% of the population perished during this period.
Not only did the Khmer Rouge period exact a heavy toll on the Cambodian population, there also were major impacts on institutions and infrastructure within the country. Universities were closed, as were many primary and secondary schools. Although the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) had a Ministry of Education, there was little in the way of an articulated education program. Typically, the focus of education was on the precepts of the Khmer revolution, with limited attention given to even basic literacy. As a result, the literacy rate for an entire generation of Cambodian children was quite low (Ayres, 2000; U.S. Library of Congress, countrystudies.us/combodia/35.htm; de Walque, 2004). Phyrun (1996) noted that one of the outcomes of the Khmer Rouge period was the complete destruction of institutions responsible for management of the country’s resources, these include trained personnel, appropriate laws and regulations, enforcement capability, and government structures for development of environmental policies and co-ordination necessary for their implementation.
Despite this recent history, many reports have guarded optimism regarding socio-economic improvements for the country (e.g. United Nations, 2003) and it has been our observation that Cambodia is at a pivotal point in its history. It has the opportunity to move along the road of sustainable development, provided appropriate management decisions are made. In particular, Phyrun (1996) noted that the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) sees water as contributing to its priority of poverty alleviation, economic growth and food security. Water historically has played an important role in Cambodian society, for example, as evidenced by the magnificent hydraulic network and reservoirs constructed as part of the temple complex in Angkor between the eighth and 13th centuries (Albanese, 2002; Kummu, 2003; Fletcher et al., 2003). Given the importance of water that the RGC has assigned to the country’s future, the focus of this chapter is to provide an overview of water quality issues in Cambodia. This is not meant to be an exhaustive examination of the situation, but merely a starting point for discussion to help focus future management decisions. In providing this overview, we draw heavily upon the literature, as well as our own research projects and experience in Cambodia.
Our group, which includes faculty and students from Buffalo State, Royal University of Phnom Penh, scientists from Environment Canada’s National Water Research Institute and, Resource Development International Cambodia (RDIC) have ongoing independent and collaborative research projects related to water quality issues in Cambodia. Our collaboration began as a result of a mutual interest in arsenic contamination of drinking water. Dr. David Fredericks, a consultant for UNICEF in Cambodia, introduced the scientists from Buffalo State and Environment Canada to RDIC, one of the leading organizations in arsenic testing in the country. RDIC, a U.S.-based NGO (Non-Government Organization), works with the people of Cambodia on a variety of issues, ranging from health care, to sustainable agriculture, to water quality. An important component of the RDIC mission is public outreach and education. Other projects, beyond the arsenic issue, have started to evolve over a two year period. There is a great deal of basic research that needs to be done in Cambodia. We see two significant challenges to addressing these research needs. The first is that often there is a lack of coordination and sharing of data between projects sponsored by donor countries. Frequently, foreign scientists and personnel from different Cambodian government agencies are unaware of different ongoing projects, which is not optimal for resource sharing. Furthermore, information and data often are only available in agency reports that are difficult to access. We hope that this chapter goes some way in highlighting important water quality issues and reviewing them within a cohesive framework in a publication more readily available in the west. The second challenge is that of working in a developing, tropical country. Research support that we take for granted in the west is not readily available in Cambodia. Laboratory facilities are quite basic. At the present time there is limited capacity for the type of automated monitoring (both water quantity and quality) that we are accustomed to in the west. If existing monitoring equipment malfunctions, it is not possible to simply get a spare part the next day. Scheduling sampling can be a challenge, particularly when roadways in many areas become impassable during the rainy season. Still, it is important to meet these challenges using appropriate (in many cases, simpler) technology now, while at the same time providing education and training to inspire more refined research approaches in the future.
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