Field Note #27: Making a difference in Cambodia

Cambodia is a small country nestled on the Indochina Peninsula, bordered by Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. It’s densely populated, with approximately 15 million citizens, and it’s ancient temples and sprawling rice paddies are offset by big cities, like the capital of Phnom Penh.

Cambodia is also one of Wine To Water’s longest running projects. Since 2009, Wine To Water has been working all over the country to provide water and sanitation access from the rice fields to the crowded cities. Hundreds of wells and latrines have been built, and the work still continues.

The Wine To Water team travelled back to Cambodia in June 2016, to check up on previously built wells and latrines, as well as visit new villages where future projects would take place. Once there, the team was greeted by Phany, a Cambodian man who has partnered with Wine To Water to help bring clean water to his people.

The first stop was the Green Pasture Inn. The inn is part of a Cambodian organization, started by Phany, called Kone Kmeng. Kone Kmeng, which translates to “for the children”, is a program that helps local children obtain an education. Kone Kmeng also works to provide clean water to the Cambodian people. So far, 8124 families have been provided with water and sanitation, and 12,754 children have been put through primary school. Kone Kmeng also runs a high school, and has sent 40 students to college on scholarship

Phany’s inspiration to start Kone Kmeng came to him in a dream. After praying for guidance, Phany dreamt of a child, crying outside of a church. He awoke with the sense that this dream was significant, and knew that he was meant to help the children of Cambodia.

After the brutal reign and genocide enacted by the Khmer Rouge Party in the 1970s, the country’s morale has significantly fallen. The citizens adopted an “every person for themselves” mentality, and social programs fell by the wayside, making the work of Phany and everyone in Kone Kmeng all the more valuable.

Phany’s dream began an organization that has helped thousands of children and families, but many Cambodians, especially in rural villages, still live without access to clean water. The team met with a pastor named Samrith, who explained further the need for water in the rural parts of Cambodia. Samrith does all he can to help the community, both by running a school and by letting the people of his village use water from the pond on his property.

In the dry season, which lasts from November until the end of May, Samrith’s pond is sometimes the village’s only water source. Many of the villagers have rainwater harvesting tanks, but when it doesn't rain for months on end, water becomes scarce. The pond water is murky, but it’s the only option for those with nothing to drink. Often, Samrith explained, parents would send their children to Samrith’s school for the sole purpose of having them collect water for the family.

Next stop was the Svay Rieng Province, to distribute water filters and follow up on wells that had been built in the area a few months prior. Svay Rieng is an agricultural community, populated mostly by rice paddy farmers, so water access is crucial. Since most locally dug wells tend to dry up in the dry season, many families are left without water in the driest part of the year.

The team met with a local pastor, who’d had a water filter for the past three years. The pastor explained that his village was agricultural, and out of 385 households, only 208 of these have access to latrines. There are 199 wells in the village, but less than half of them work in the dry season. Some families, the pastor said, only bathed two or three times during the whole dry season.

Many people get sick in the village, due to drinking water directly from the well. The pastor has his own water filter, preventing him from being infected with waterborne illnesses. But since the community is a poor agricultural one, the villagers typically aren’t educated on things like hygiene and sanitation. This, said the pastor, leads to whole families getting sick when just one parent does.

However, the families in the village with access to latrines and clean water are a completely different story. As the number of families with wells, latrines and water filters began to grow, their instances of illness decreased. Their friends and neighbors noticed this, and began to follow suit. The pastor said that even those who saw no need for filtering their water beforehand changed their mind once they realized it would improve their overall health and quality of life. He said with a smile that the villagers with clean water “look healthy, and really are happy.”

In the village of Chup Pring, we met a young boy named Samoan and his family. Samoan’s family was one of Svay Rieng’s well beneficiaries, and it was evident from Samoan’s good health and bright smile that having the well for merely three months  had changed things for this family.

Samoan’s father expressed his happiness at the difference the well was making not just for his family, but for the entire village. If a community member has no access to water, they are welcome to come to the family’s well. “We live close to each other, and we share what we have,” said Samoan’s father in regards to his neighbors. It’s his goal to put in a latrine for his family.

Samoan standing by his family’s well

Samoan standing by his family’s well

Another one of the families visited was Dy’s. Dy is an eight year old girl and one of six children. Her father died nearly a year ago, so she and her siblings help their mother, a rice paddy farmer, in any way they can.

Dy pumps water from her family’s well

Dy pumps water from her family’s well

Dy’s mother explained how the well has helped the family, as Dy pumped water joyfully behind her. Before the well, Dy and her siblings would get sick at least three or four times a month from drinking dirty water. Now, they get ill much less often. They are able to drink the well water without fear of weeks of abdominal pain and dysentery. Dy’s mother says it has eased her burden of being a single parent by allowing more opportunity for bathing, washing clothes, cleaning dishes, and more. Dy’s family has been forever changed by this well, and now they have a convenient source of water for the rest of their lives.

Working in the field is humbling, enlightening, and life-changing. Even our seasoned travellers and volunteers have new stories to tell from each trip about things that surprised them, spoke to them, and more. When you travel abroad, you see parts of the world you never even knew existed. You think about things that had never crossed your mind, and you see people living in ways you never imagined. We urge you to join us in the field and experience this for yourself.

-Shane, Cambodia

David Schroeder