PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In 2002, a Rotarian named Gunther Hausen took a trip to Cambodia’s Siem Reap province to deliver dental equipment to Cambodian medical workers.
While at a local hospital, he noticed how many children were being treated for diarrhea. A hospital staff member told him that even after receiving treatment, the children would be back in two to three weeks because the water they had to drink at home and at school was contaminated. If Hausen really wanted to help, he was told he should do something about the water. This prompted Hausen to apply for funding and develop the Water for Cambodia project.
Water for Cambodia is a non-governmental organization that works alongside rural Cambodians to test local water supplies, install water filters and educate locals. As of 2014, almost 13,000 filters have been installed in Siem Reap.
One man who has been instrumental to the organization is Dr. Kevin Curry, a biology professor from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. In 2007, he was asked to join the project in order to develop the Siem Reap Quality Laboratory, which would test the water. Dr. Curry agreed to help but said he was too busy to actually go to Cambodia. Hausen told him to “think about it.” Seven years later, Dr. Curry has now made the trip countless times.
Originally, Dr. Curry went for two weeks, but the next year, he received a fellowship from the university president as well as a Rotary teaching fellowship. He then had enough funding to stay in Cambodia for eight months, teaching in the capital city of Phnom Penh as well as installing water filters in Siem Reap. In the following years, he and his wife have traveled there for four to five months at a time each year, with a group of 10-15 university students accompanying them for about three weeks. The students have the opportunity to see first-hand the Cambodian lifestyle and work directly with the filter installation process.
In order to install a filter, the Water for Cambodia workers must receive permission from the village chief. Once permission is granted, a team works with the villagers to assemble the filters and teaches the Cambodians how to use and care for them.
The type of filter installed by Water for Cambodia is called a biosand filter. The filters are concrete boxes that are filled with two layers of gravel, 45 cm of very fine crushed stone, 5-10 cm of water and a diffuser plate. Contaminated water is poured in the top and percolates down through the sand and gravel, and later, when more polluted water is added, the newly filtered water is pushed up and out through a pipe. The filtering process is mostly mechanical, with the sand and gravel filtering out 98.5 percent of bacteria, 99.9 percent of protozoa, 95 percent of turbidity and 90-95 percent of iron. Each filter costs about $60, but a household only pays $7 for their own filter, with the rest of the cost covered by fundraising.
The current population of Cambodia is around 15 million, with 2 million people living in the capital city where they have access to treated water. The rest of the population is rural and either draws their water from wells or must walk, sometimes great distances, to retrieve it from naturally-occurring bodies of water.
According to the U.S. Millennium Challenge, in 2002, 1.1 billion people worldwide lacked access to water. In 2011, that number had dropped to 768 million. However, as Dr. Curry was quick to point out, there is a difference between access and safety. Dr. Curry emphasizes the importance of clean, accessible water and higher standards of living when he insisted that, in order to break out of the poverty cycle, children must be healthy enough to go to school. With the number of children being hospitalized for preventable illnesses, this is not happening.
The filters that Dr. Curry and his colleagues install have helped thousands of Cambodians, but, in addition to the usual bacteria and pollutants that contaminate water, there is the problem of poisonous arsenic, which the water supplies must be tested for because a standard biosand filter will not cure water of arsenic. If a water supply is found to contain arsenic, then the filter is modified by adding iron oxide.
Clean water is necessary not only for drinking but also for sanitation, hygiene and food preparation. When food, clothes and people are washed with contaminated water, the contamination easily spreads to anything and anyone. Additionally, most people in impoverished nations do not understand the concept of bacteria. Therefore, the importance of something as simple as hand washing is overlooked, and the education portion of the Water for Cambodia project is just as important as the installation of filters.
The people at Water for Cambodia work hard to be good global neighbors and do what they can to make a difference. Dr. Curry believes that he has been given the gifts and talents he has for a reason, and that the filtration program is a calling in his own spiritual journey. What the rest of his journey holds is difficult to say, but it is sure to include bettering the living conditions of some of the world’s poorest people one water filter at a time.