One toilet at a time: enhancing quality of life and battling open defecation in rural Cambodian communities
Cambodia has made impression progress over the last 30 years in increasing access to sanitary latrines throughout the country, but it still remains a challenge outside urban areas. Collaborative efforts between the public and private sectors are currently underway to strive for open defecation free (ODF) status in all rural communities.
In many of Cambodia’s rural villages, a late-night visit to the latrine isn’t as simple as flipping on a light switch and taking a groggy stumble down the hallway. Outside the nation’s cities, the reality of life without a toilet is an inconvenience for most and an everyday struggle for some.
“Before, I had to defecate on the other side of that wall and then bury it and hide it,” explained 75-year-old Troh village resident, Paek Sivorn. “Since I am blind it was so hard, more difficult than for other people. Now that we have a bathroom, it is so much easier for me and my family.”
Across the country, millions of people live without access to proper toilet facilities, casting a shadow on the economic and institutional progress the nation has made in recent decades and subjecting them to what the World Health Organisation calls “a vicious cycle of disease and poverty.” However, a renewed effort to reach open defecation free (ODF) status in the country’s rural villages is making long overdue progress and improving the quality of life for those outside the capital.
To achieve this goal, we have teamed up with the local government and other NGOs to strengthen water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems, promote awareness in communities about the importance of proper hygiene, and facilitate the building of latrines in provinces across the country.
At the heart of our work is capacity building within local government leadership and facilitating cooperation between stakeholders at the province, district and community levels.
This supporting role has allowed us to identify organisational challenges and equip local leaders with the necessary technical training to better address the needs of their communities.
“WaterAid is positioning itself as the sector organiser, so the way that we perform is mostly through playing a very strong role in coordinating with other organisations. But we also want to improve the ways that government [officials] are accountable to their citizens. We have activities to empower the community to be able to voice their concerns to their leaders and to their service providers.” - Sokha Mok, WaterAid’s program manager for WASH system strengthening.
Sokha Rath, a clerk in Kampong Phnum commune, has seen first hand how the planning sessions that bring together representatives from local hospitals, pagodas, schools and communities give stakeholders a chance to voice their concerns and recommendations for WASH strategies at the village level.
“It's important to have all the elements of the district to gather together at the committee meetings because they are the ones who face the problems in real life; they see the reality. The district authority may not be able to see everything in their district but the people know what is needed.” - Sokha Rath
Providing residents with opportunities to engage with local leaders is essential to improving WASH services and reaching ODF status in villages, however, before any successful strategy can be developed, authorities must have a detailed picture of the situation on the ground.
“WaterAid does field visits inside each community so that they know how to implement the projects. These field visits are for the purpose of research and analysing the situation.” -Kandal Stueng District Governor, Saroeun Ouch
Tasked with conducting these door-to-door surveys on the presence of toilets and producing the detailed maps that chart Troh village’s progress towards ODF status, 61-year-old Vanna Ouch is a prime example of how WaterAid staff support government efforts in Kandal Stueng district. A lifelong resident of Troh village, her team’s work has been instrumental in building robust data sets that support government efforts to achieve ODF status in the area. It also gives her a sense of accomplishment that runs deeper than any single activity.
“I think it is important to contribute to the ODF project because I consider myself an environmentalist. Before, so many people had no toilets and had to [defecate] outside in the bush, so I am really happy that I can help the people in my community.” - Vanna Ouch
There is still much work to improve sanitation for every household in Cambodia. So far only 13 of 203 districts across the country can claim ODF status. However, WaterAid’s strategy of data collection, planning and facilitating collaboration proved effective for this ambitious project. From 2019 to 2020 alone, ODF status increased nationally by more than 8%.
For Paek Sivorn and her neighbours, these collaborative efforts are making a difference, changing lives and letting rural communities share in Cambodia’s progress, one toilet at a time.
“We were the last house in the village to get a toilet, so now that we have a toilet, we have proper living conditions. The more toilets the better; for the community and the people.” - Paek Sivorn