Ek Sonn Chan pipes something precious into the homes of Phnom Penh: safe water
Residents of Cambodia's capital city used to have little access to safe drinking water; now more than 90 percent of homes have it.
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"There is absolutely no question that under Mr. Chan ... [the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority] has undergone a miracle," says Asit Biswas, president of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, in an e-mail interview. The center advises 19 countries on water issues.Skip to next paragraph
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Chan was born into a poor family. He was the first in his family to graduate from a university, financing his studies by driving a bicycle taxi.
He received a degree in electrical engineering just three months before Khmer Rouge rebels occupied Phnom Penh. Chan survived their purge of educated Cambodians by hiding his education and working as a butcher.
When Chan was appointed director of the water authority, he didn't know much about the business. He knew he had to somehow get customers to start paying their bills – only 47 percent were paying – and to stop the staff from allowing illegal connections.
Longtime employees resented him. He had no power to fire anyone, not even a bill collector "who just put the money in his pocket.
"I couldn't fire him, so I just didn't give him any work to do," Chan says.
An Army general once put a gun to Chan's head after the water authority disconnected the general's water line when he wouldn't pay his bills.
"I could have been killed," Chan says. "But we still disconnected his water to show that even an Army general has to pay his water bill."
Today the water authority is one of the most efficiently run in the world. Everyone pays their bills. The authority has put in place a leak repair team that's on-call 24 hours a day, and water losses have been reduced to 6 percent.
The authority charges 25 cents for a cubic meter of water – one of the cheapest rates in the world – and offers to test the water in anyone's home free of charge.
"Their published accounts show a high profitability," says Eric Beugnot, the director of the French Development Agency in Phnom Penh, an agency of the French government that recently lent €16 million ($23 million) to the authority to build a water treatment plant.
This success is "largely due to the qualities of the general director – his personal involvement and his integrity," Mr. Beugnot says.
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