Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

On Phnom Penh’s outskirts, residents live on unsafe water as hot season dries state supply

A woman showers a child in water purchased from a private company in outer Phnom Penh, March 21. CamboJA/Pring Samrang
A woman showers a child in water purchased from a private company in outer Phnom Penh, March 21. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

Chhoeun Sam Ol roasts beef on the roadside as blue trucks rumble past full of water being sold to families as the state’s water pipes lay dry in parts of outer Phnom Penh.

“Its two months so far; we haven’t had a drop of clean water, “ Sam Ol told CamboJA one morning in Toul Kei village last week. “See these trucks, they carry water from elsewhere to supply people here.”

The trucked-in water is not clean enough to drink or cook with, forcing him to buy bottled water on top of fetching water from a pond near the local pagoda, he said, pointing to a tap at the front of his shop.

“Look, I’ve left it turned on for two months, it has no water,” he said. “I had plans to buy a water filter for day-to-day use but what’s the point when there is no water coming in.”

Toul Kei is one of many communities where residents are paying private companies for water, amid a shortage as temperatures rise at the end of another long, hot dry season.

More than 40,000 families – equivalent to 12 percent of Phnom Penh’s population – are experiencing water shortages, the state-owned Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) said in March.

The utility said “unusually low” water levels in the Mekong River were causing the shortages – but observers point to unbridled development, including the filling of lakes, and poor management as contributing factors.

By 2030, Phnom Penh is expected to almost double in population – to four million, Industry and Handicrafts Minister Cham Prasidh said at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new water treatment facility in Bakheng, which is expected to go online in 2022.

At current capacity, PPWSA can meet less than 85 percent of Phnom Penh’s daily water requirements, according to the Cambodian Securities Exchange-listed firm’s annual shareholder report, which noted 43,000 new users in 2019-2020.

As Phnom Penh has been overhauled by development in recent years, the government has been criticized for poor planning and regulation that has led to a wide array of problems for communities and the environment.

Rights groups say that delivering clean water to residents should be a priority.

“With rapid development and the increase in population, they need to have a clean water management policy to respond the city’s expansion,” said San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability.

“Water shortages may be cause by many factors, such as climate change, new city expansions demanding more clean water, while lake filling is reducing natural water storage,” he said.

PPWSA director Sim Sitha could not be reached for comment.

City Hall spokesman Meth Measpheakdey declined to comment.

Residents collect water from water tanks in Borey New World in Phnom Penh last week. CamboJA/Sorn Sarath

More than 20 percent of Cambodia’s population does not have easy access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organisation and Unicef’s Joint Monitoring Programme, a global water and sanitation database.

The 2017 data shows that 11 percent of the population is still relying on surface water like ponds, springs, and rivers and that, in total, 3.4 million people are still in need of basic access to safe water in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s sustainable development goal 6 commits by 2030 to have access to basic water and sanitation for all.

But observers say that the rapid development of Phnom Penh has not been sustainable – and the consequences, such as water shortages, could in turn dissuade investors and hinder development, said property realtor Kim Heang.

“They need to have clear master plan for urbanization at least 10 years in advance,” said Heang, the regional operating principal of US-based real estate firm Keller William Cambodia and CEO of Khmer Real Estate Co Ltd.

“There should be no reason that Phnom Penh has not enough water. It is unacceptable,” he said. “Water supply must go beyond the demand, otherwise, it will slow the development progress.”

About 20 km from central Phnom Penh along National Road 4, hundreds of families at Borey New World use water from the developer’s wells during the dry season, residents said. “Every year from March until July, we don’t have clean water” said resident Chhin Kimheng. 

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