Water diaries tell of life in Cambodia

Source: http://www.alertnet.org/db/blogs/24453/2008/02/20-102524-1.htm

20 Mar 2008 10:25:00 GMT
Written by: Becky Webb

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– A man transports his floating house up river near Chong Khneas floating village in Cambodia. REUTERS/Tim Chong

Even now, during the dry season, water seems to penetrate all aspects of Cambodian culture. Thousands of Cambodians earn their living by rice farming, while many more live on floating villages – whole communities set adrift along the river.

Life for people here is ruled by water – too little rain and the rice production will fail, too much rain and the fishing industry will suffer as the rivers and lakes swell, making catching fish all the more difficult.

The British Red Cross has been helping children in the UK understand how precious clean water is, by comparing their experiences with Cambodia where many children die from water-related disease. To mark World Water Day, the Red Cross asked schoolchildren from both the UK and Cambodia to write water diaries to compare their experiences of this vital resource.

In Chong Khneas floating village, over 500 children attend the floating school. As the water gently rocks the classroom, teacher Ean Fophon explains that the school is constantly moving with the water.

“The school changes position depending upon the season as it flows along with the water, so in the rainy season it moves closer to the mountains,” she said. The lake on which the school floats is also the only water to which many of the villagers have access.

“Many villagers here do not have latrines and so defecate into the water,” Fophon continues. “This is then also used for bathing, swimming and fishing.”

Viey Savet, 12, attends a floating school. “All our water comes from the lake so I don’t know where other people get their water from,” he says. “I think there is enough water all around the world though. The main dangers with water here are getting diarrhoea and skin diseases.”

The local health centre sees up to 40 cases of diahorea and skin diseases every month, which they directly attribute to bathing in the lake. The amount of rainfall has a direct impact on peoples lives, as the incidence of disease is reportedly higher in the dry season when the water in the lake is more concentrated.

As changing weather patterns continue to tip this delicate balance, life for many Cambodians is becoming more difficult. The pressures are greatest in the distant rural areas, away from the hustle and bustle of Phenom Penh, in provinces such as Oddar Meanchey.

Here, the lack of water and sanitation facilities is brutally apparent. Oddar Meanchey province has more than double the urban mortality rates – here some 11.0 percent of Cambodia’s children die before reaching the age of five, compared with 5.2 percent in the capital.

In Chong Kal School in Oddar Meanchey province, over 1000 pupils are benefiting from the work of the Red Cross as water filters in the corner of each class room provide clean and safe water for the children throughout the day. Samnat, aged 11, has studied how children in the UK access water. “We take the water from the well, and in the UK they turn on a tap,” he says. “I don’t know if they use more or less water than we do, but the water in the UK is better than the water in Cambodia.”

Getting water from the well was something which five-year-old Ta Daa also describes in his diary: “In the morning before school I get water for the family from the well which quite near my house. I carry the water all by myself – it is difficult because it is very heavy,” he writes.

Back in the UK, 11-year-old Fraser from Southborough in Kent has been reading the Cambodian pupils’ diaries. “Taps definitely make our lives easier,” he says. “I’ve been at Scout Camp and it made me use less water as we had to try and make it last. We had to walk to get water and it is much heavier to carry than you think.”

In Cambodia, the British Red Cross has helped more than 60,000 people to have cleaner water and sanitation over the past five years. However, every 20 seconds worldwide, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation. That’s 1.5 million preventable deaths each year. There is still much more to be done.

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