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.

Julie Masis
When Ek Sonn Chan took over the water authority in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1993, the enterprise couldn’t afford chlorine. Now purity is widespread, and the agency offers free in-home tests to city residents.

Ek Sonn Chan, the general director of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, offers visitors to his office cool water in a crystal glass, covered by a silver lid in the shape of a Cambodian crown.

It is tap water – unboiled.

He drinks from his glass first, after taking off the lid and waiting a moment to let the chlorine smell dissipate. Then he encourages his visitors to do the same.

"I always guarantee to all my guests – if you drink my water and have a problem, I will be responsible," he says. "All my staff drink the water from the tap. My granddaughter is 1 year old and she drinks the water from the tap."

The water in this developing-world capital comes from the river – a river into which floodwaters mix with water from the sewer drain during rainstorms. (The city has no waste-water treatment plant.)

Yet the employees at the city's water authority guarantee it is safe to drink. The water is so good that it passed the test of the Coca-Cola Co., they say.

In 1993, when Mr. Chan took over as director of the water authority in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the government enterprise wasn't even making enough money to cover its electricity bill or to buy chlorine for purification.

Employees made extra cash by selling illegal connections to the city's water pipes. More than 72 percent of the water supplied into the system was unaccounted for – either lost due to leaks or stolen.

After the end of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, during which the city had been emptied of its inhabitants, the staff didn't even know where more than half of the pipes in the 174-mile distribution system were. Only a small area close to the city's center had running water, and the pressure was so low that water couldn't even go up to the second floor of buildings.

Nhean Tola, who grew up in Phnom Penh, recalls that in the early 1990s only one house in his neighborhood had city water. Because of low pressure, it could be accessed only through a hole in the ground.

Every day Mr. Tola's mother had to wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. to go to a neighbor's house for water. Even then, the quality wasn't good, and as a child Tola says he often experienced diarrhea and contracted typhoid twice.

Today 92 percent of Phnom Penh's residents have running water. The city's water coverage has expanded from seven square miles to 54 square miles, according to Eng Chea Visoth, the assistant general director of the water authority. It serves 210,000 customers – almost 10 times more than in 1993.

Water can now be pumped up more than 65 feet – to the apartment blocks that have recently changed the city's skyline.

The improvements took place thanks to generous donations from the French and Japanese governments and, everyone agrees, Chan's fearless leadership.

"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.

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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