Kea Pheng Interview: WASH, CLTS, and sanitation marketing success in Cambodia

An interview with Kea Pheng, executive director of RainWater Cambodia (RWC), local NGO established in 2004, working with communities to promote equitable access to water and sanitation services. Kea discusses community-led total sanitation, behaviour change communication, and the need for improved sanitation in Cambodia.

Kea has significant experience in the development sector and worked on rural development projects before shifting to water and sanitation. He has an MBA and a Degree in Development Studies from Switzerland. His organisation, Rainwater Cambodia currently works in 15 of 25 provinces in the country on water & sanitation and climate change adaptation projects.

Interview topics

  • Outlining the work of RainWater Cambodia, and Kea Pheng’s background
  • Describing the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) process
  • Marketing and uptake of sanitation equipment
  • Challenges of disposing of waste from the toilets to make sanitation effective
  • About the available subsidies
  • Future plans for RainWater Cambodia, and its wish for collaborators.

Please tell us about Rainwater Cambodia which you lead, and something of your own background

RainWater Cambodia was established as an NGO in Cambodia in early 2004. Our vision is a community where drinking water and sanitation are accessible and equitable. Our main mission is to support the community to find simple solutions to access water and sanitation, by strengthening the capacity of local entrepreneurs to supply appropriate installations to meet demand. We have worked on more than 45 projects in this field, providing access to water and sanitation and also means of adapting to climate change. RainWater Cambodia has worked in 15 of the 25 provinces in Cambodia. The organisation has partners inside and outside of Cambodia, such as Engineers Without Borders Australia, and other NGOs operating in Cambodia right now, and UNICEF.

My own background is in finance for the development sector. I have an MBA. I also studied animal production and worked for a rural development program before moving into water and sanitation projects. I am currently the Executive Director of RainWater Cambodia.

As well as rainwater harvesting, RainWater Cambodia facilitates local participation in the development of piped water systems and encourages people to change their sanitation and hygiene behaviours. How does this happen?

Yes, actually RainWater Cambodia does not only capture rainwater.  We intervene in two ways to provide solutions for essential water supply and for sanitation and personal hygiene.

On the one hand, we arrange designs for accessible water and sanitation facilities, including prototyping, feasibility studies and managing construction. On the other hand, we work to encourage behaviour-change in water use through communication activities and capacity-building. In all this, we partner with the community and with the government.

For example, in 2016, we completed Phase One of a project funded by the Global Sanitation Fund, through Plan International. The project began in 2004. The first step was to define the districts for the project to target, based on several criteria. For instance, we would choose to work in districts with less than 50% sanitation coverage. It was also important that the local community is willing to participate and the local authorities were interested in implementing the project. The grant guidelines, excluded challenging environments, such as those prone to flooding.

We use an approach called community-led total sanitation, widely known as CLTS. In this approach, we create a chain of communication and complement it by promoting hygiene and marketing sanitation products. This project is not based on a subsidy for toilets. Ideally, we alert the community to the issues caused by poor sanitation, poor hygiene and poor-quality water. We make them aware of the challenges and the potential risks they may face in the future and we engage with them to see if they can solve these issues. Then three to six months later, we bring in another program linked to sanitation marketing activities, with local entrepreneurs. They sell toilets and other related products and introduce these products to the community so they can decide if they will invest in them. Our project includes support through follow-up visits and community engagement.

We also engage the local authority to implement the project. We discuss it with them and clearly outline what the project will try to achieve and how it fits with the National Strategic Development Plan for water and sanitation. We engage the local authority to put this sanitation and hygiene program into their Community Development Plan and we find a key player from the community to lead the project.

The goal of the program is for each village to become open-defecation-free (ODF). When the village no longer has open defecation, we do an assessment with all the partners and then declare the village has achieved the goal of the project. Some other projects are dependent on donors, which sometimes use subsidies or donations to the beneficiaries. The water and sanitation project may be linked to a food and education program in some locations. Most water and sanitation projects are supported by a subsidy or a grant for installing the system and providing some training.

Can you describe the CLTS process and what it is like to go into a community and talk with people and make that happen?

CLTS is a process that has three phases.

Phase One is what we call ‘pre-triggering’. The idea is to prepare a place for sanitation and find key players to facilitate the process. They agree on a time-frame and a location. Then one or two weeks after that, a pre-triggering meeting is conducted in the village, usually lasting two to three hours.

Phase Two is ‘triggering’. Two groups of participants have involvement: one group is female and the other is a general group including children. There are two facilitators, who work in different places. There are seven critical tools or steps and risk is really the trigger:

  • The first tool or step we use is always is village mapping, involving all the participants. They draw a map of the village on the ground and we add in key places: public local institutions, such as schools, health centres, and community buildings. Then, we invite the participants to map the households. They then map the households with a toilet and without a toilet. That shows us where the people live, who always do open defecation. They also mark on the map the place that is used for open defecation.
  • The second step is to calculate the amount of shit that is defecated every day, per day, and per month and per year. The question arising from this conversation is: Where does this shit go? In the calculation, we find out how many tonnes of shit is stored in that defecation site and we try to discuss the amount and where it goes and how it contaminates the water.
  • The third step is to go to that place. We invite the participants to the place where people do open defecation — to smell it and to observe the key infection factors, such as flies, chickens, pigs, and some livestock.
  • The fourth step is to come back and estimate the rate of infection.
  • The fifth step is is to talk about the impacts on health and economic losses through ill-health.
  • The sixth step is then a discussion about contamination between mothers and children and especially babies. If you are feeding babies and you don’t wash your hands when your hands are contaminated, then that is how the baby is affected by the shit
  • The final step is planning: how the participants will build a toilet or stop open defecation. Also, at this stage, the facilitator has to record those who wash their hands.

Phase Three is ‘post-triggering’ — and this is the follow-up stage — and is very important. A week after the triggering meeting, the facilitator has to go to the households to follow-up on the plan and ask how they will build a toilet or why they won’t and if there is any difficulty. There is a lot of conversation during the follow-up visits. Then there are further follow-up visits on a monthly basis, with the facilitator pushing the households who participated in the process to build their own toilets and also to visit other neighbours who do not have toilets. These are the three phases of CLTS. The follow-up phase also involves those who did not participate in the triggering process, so there is knowledge-sharing. The outcome we aim for is that all people in the village have to use a toilet, always, maybe sharing a toilet. When that is achieved, they can call for the project team to conduct a verification of the village.

The verification process has very clear guidelines, developed by the WASH sector and our government. It is very critical to reach ODF status: to be an ‘open-defecation-free’ village. When the village has been assessed as ODF on the basis of the verification criteria, the development team and project participants plan a public announcement of that declaration to the village. The public declaration is very important — both to inspire the community and also to share the importance of going on using the toilet, to ensure that usage continues. To achieve ODF status, the fastest villages take at least six to eight months, but for about half the villages it will take 12 to 18 months, which is the average time. Some can take up to two years.

How does sanitation marketing link in with the CLTS process? Is the marketing simply the process of selling toilet systems that suit each situation and getting them installed correctly?

Sanitation marketing is part of Phase Three of the CLTS process — that is, the ‘post triggering’. During the post-triggering follow-ups, we can link to a program on sanitation marketing and start to introduce the products and how people can install a sanitation system. This is also a chance to introduce the sellers but they are mostly already in the area. If a household wants to put in a toilet, they can just call and find out who the suppliers are and what they have to pay. Unlike some other South Asian countries or countries in Africa, Cambodian communities don’t really like to install a dry toilet, even though it would work well.

The first barrier to building a toilet is the cost. Everyone says they don’t have enough money but we try to help them find the resources. It may take five or six months for them to find the money they need for the type of toilet that we use for sanitation. Then people don’t like to put in a dry toilet because of the smell. They need to use ash to reduce the smell and it is difficult to find ash. So, that is the second barrier: our consumers want a flushing toilet, with a water tank inside the house and an inside bathroom with a shower. This costs a lot of money, as much as US$400 to 500, whereas the dry toilet we use in sanitation marketing costs around $60 for the in-ground structure.

What happens when the toilet waste is flushed away? Surely for a house to have a flushing toilet, there needs to be a pipe to bring the water in and then pipes to take away the waste? Do you build septic systems for the households or does your team install small-scale wastewater treatment facilities?  Is there a fear that people will go back to open defecation if the pit doesn’t serve their needs?

For internal household toilet waste, each household has only one pit. There is no treatment process in place for people in the country areas but I know the sector is trying to initiate some ideas for small central systems where the waste can be treated before it goes into the environment. It only at a pilot stage as yet.

We have found that some household toilet pits have filled up and drained into empty land, so toilet waste is still contaminating the environment. Some families take the waste to their plantation, but it hasn’t been treated so it’s still spreading infection. You can call for a tank truck to pump out the pit but the problem here is that some of the private sector tank trucks don’t take the waste to the treatment station but instead just discharge it elsewhere.

We need to have a study to find out the potential business opportunities in this. There was a study in 2009 or 2010 but the conclusion was that opportunities in this business were not good. Now it’s seven years later and we know more about the issues, so now would be a good time to have another study of potential opportunities.

Can you explain a bit about the subsidies? It sounds as if you need the community members to invest in toilets to show that they understand the value of sanitation and want to keep it maintained.

As yet, there is no guaranteed subsidy for poor or marginalised households, so for them to afford a toilet still depends on the project base. Subsidies differ depending on the NGO involved. The government has a subsidy guideline for sanitation and I’m sure there will be more information coming out about the guideline. Subsidies vary greatly from project to project. Most programs should donate the infrastructure for schools and health centres. 

What new target areas and projects and approaches are you planning to work on in RainWater Cambodia in the near to far future?

In the Rainwater program, over the next five years, we want to be expert in the field of rainwater provisioning in Cambodia, based on a study we conducted in 2016. We will continue to work on behaviour change and the non-subsidy-based approach in our sanitation and hygiene implementation program. We have a set ourselves a goal to find designs or systems that can be used in challenging environments where there are no solutions at present. Also, we are interested in using our expertise on a small scale to provide wastewater treatment for schools. It would be ideal if we can look at those also. 

For people who listen to this interview and who may be really passionate about supporting your work, how would you encourage them to get involved?

I am very keen to ask for the support of a development expert and for help from those who have knowledge in this field. Even though we are working only in Cambodia, we have to use different approaches in different places. We are open to people proposing innovations and technology that may have been applied in some other country similar to Cambodia. Maybe there is an NGO that has experience in behaviour-change or in engineering design and construction. We welcome support and partnerships to bring in ideas.

About Rainwater Cambodia (RWC)

RWC not only works just on rainwater harvesting but also has two other main parts to their intervention:

  • The design, prototyping, and construction management of WASH facilities
  • Behaviour change communication programs.

They have also been working on a feasibility study to develop WASH systems for challenging environments.

RWC works collaboratively with other NGOs in Cambodia, such as Engineers Without Borders and UNICEF. Kea talks about a major sanitation project that RWC worked on for the Global Sanitation Fund through PLAN International that ran between 2012 and 2016.

Kea hopes that within the next 5 to 10 years RWC will become rainwater harvesting experts in Cambodia. They also hope to continue with their behaviour change communication, and sanitation design work for challenging environments and communal treatment systems. They have worked on decentralized wastewater treatment in schools in the past and they will continue to look at that in the future.

Community-led total sanitation (CLTS)

Kea describes the community-led total sanitation process that Rainwater Cambodia uses to promote effective sanitation and hygiene behaviours in communities. He also briefly mentions some other approaches including:

Kea reveals that as part of their sanitation projects they are required to do significant community engagement to obtain support from both the local authorities and communities. Often, he talks with local officials and outlines how achieving Open Defecation Free (ODF) status, is part of Cambodia’s National Strategic Development Plan and has the support of high-ranking people

Kea describes how achieving ODF status can take as little as six to eight months for some villages and over two years for others free to inspire others to follow their example. The post triggering stage is quite important in this regard, including how well it is integrated with other activities initiatives such as sanitation marketing.

He also describes how sewage treatment is not done on a large scale in Cambodia in many contexts and that RWC is working on ideas that may evolve and is keen to work with experts with experience from other countries. He describes many contexts where sanitation problems have significant impacts. He describes some houses near his home built for labour workers, without proper sewage facilities and then when it rains the roads are flooded with sewage

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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