Challenges and opportunities for human resources development in the WASH sector in Cambodia

By Virak Chan, IWCAN

In an interview, I discussed some of the challenges and opportunities for developing human resources in the water sector in Cambodia. This is not just a Cambodian problem but a global one. Not only is there little data about human resources in the NGO, public and private sectors, but investment and planning for capacity development are often restricted by the focus of short-term donor projects and funding cycles. There is still a persistent overemphasis on hardware, with perhaps the exception of community-based sanitation; and a mismatch between what is planned for and what actually happens. Longer-term government planning will require more hands-on local control of the capacity development agenda with a focus on the continuous development of the new skills required to address water and sanitation challenges more independently.

Professional capacity for addressing WASH requirements in the Asia Pacific Region

In order to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the Asia Pacific water sector needs to increase the number of qualified professionals working towards these goals. The conference synthesis report Meeting the Sanitation and Water Challenge in South East Asia and the Pacific estimates that about one million additional water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) workers are needed, mostly at the local level, in this region.

The UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS, 2010) report found that lower-middle-income countries face similar constraints when it comes to sourcing staff for roles related to water and sanitation including:

  • Organisations focused on WASH have inadequate budgets to hire and retain qualified professionals in the field;
  • There are not enough people with the technical skills required to meet WASH outcomes;
  • Limited opportunities exist for educated professionals who have invested in career development;
  • WASH is not perceived to be an attractive career and competing with other fields; organisations provide unattractive incentives to those who are employed;
  • WASH-related training and professional development opportunities are limited;
  • Organisations often are unable to retain skilled staff as projects end leading to unstable employment;
  • There are barriers to entry for younger people to get involved in WASH activities;

High demand for WASH and water sector skills

A World Bank assessment of the supply and demand of human resources illustrated the breadth of skills required to meet WASH needs in the region. For example, a diverse range of roles will need to be filled in order to meet national WASH objectives, including:

  • Water and sanitation engineers — with skills in the provision of water and sanitation infrastructure, such as civil or environmental engineers.
  • Other engineers — with skills in planning, designing, and operating WASH infrastructure, such as hydro-geologists and mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers, and tradespeople
  • Social development professionals — with skills in hygiene and health promotion, behaviour change and education such as teachers, sociologists, and community development and health workers.

The scale of this challenge in Cambodia

Human resource needs in Cambodia’s water sector are emerging as a key constraint to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. If you look at existing human resources, and at what education institutions can currently provide, there is a gap. Cambodia’s population is expected to grow from 13.4 million in 2008 to 19.6 million in 2028. An additional ten million people will require services, and new and existing facilities will need to be maintained. This will require effective local institutional structures to be developed, and long-term investment in human capital.

To illustrate this more clearly, in urban contexts, if only the provision of new piped water systems is considered, it is estimated that the size of the workforce will need to double just to meet existing needs for new utilities. Furthermore, the UN-Water report indicates that 12,000 employees with various professional capacities will be required for WASH services. In contrast, a 2016 partner mapping report suggests that there are approximately 775 employees working in this sector in NGOs and government combined, indicating that human resource needs are significant.

What human resource opportunities are present in Cambodia

I decided to establish the Center for Sustainable Water as a platform to generate a local knowledge base about and to promote the importance of water-related knowledge. We aim to engage local and international stakeholders responsible for water-related human resource development to do the following:

  • Provision of training that not only meets needs for the immediate supply of operational skills and knowledge for current projects but also for the longer-term strategic planning of WASH educational systems and processes;
  • A commitment to the development of flexible, short, modular courses that maximise the use of existing local training facilities, driven by national institutions, meeting organisational time and budget constraints; and
  • Better understand what skill sets are required from a human resources perspective in order to support strategic capacity development of the WASH sector.

Organisations that have the capacity to provide training courses, such as the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) and the Institute for Technology Cambodia (ITC) need to be engaged with these challenges as well as organisations who can develop skills in the social sciences. Furthermore, better dialogue between demand and supply sides is required to understand clearly what WASH needs to exist for designing a responsive capacity building programme that achieves targeted outcomes.

To meet these needs, the Center for Sustainable Water will undertake a comprehensive WASH human resource strategy is required that includes all stakeholders, extends to WASH professionals in health and education, and maps and monitors human resource development in Cambodia.

Young Professional in WASH participants conducted a field visit to water supply and sanitation projects (Source: Center for Sustainable Water)

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