Three young Khmer professionals learning and engaging in the Cambodian water and sanitation sector

By Lachlan Guthrie, IWCAN

In a recent interview with Virak Chan, the founder of the Center for Sustainable Water discussed the need in Cambodia for emerging water practitioners to connect and address to many issues that need to be tackled in water and sanitation. This article profiles three young people who are engaging and committing to the sector. The idea follows that through connecting these committed young practitioners, knowledge will be generated, which can be transformed into local leadership in their communities.

The Cambodian water and sanitation sector is filled with many interesting young professionals, each with unique motivations. Recently, I was fortunate to discuss these with three of these people. Sophorn, an undergraduate student who is volunteering with the Center for Sustainable Water, Sokkhai a project officer for a local NGO, and Navy, an investment manager with a local consulting firm.

The enthusiastic starter

Meng Sophorn is the youngest and most enthusiastic of the professionals I talked to. She is in the final year of her studies at the Department of Rural Engineering at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia majoring in Water Resources Management and for her thesis, she is researching water quality. On top of this, she volunteers with the Centre for Sustainable Water and plans to continue studying about water through a Masters program in Indonesia after she graduates.

Meng Sophorn

“As a young professional, it is important to bring the message from the people to the project donors”
Meng Sophorn

To Sophorn, water and sanitation services provide enormous health, education, and productivity benefits in Cambodia, particularly when provided to children. Through her engagement with the WASH sector, she has learned that the Cambodian Government spends $448 Million per annum on the health sector, which is a significant financial burden for a developing country, and she sees that improving access to water and sanitation services can meet local health needs more efficiently.

She strongly believes that better management of water supply facilities can improve the lives of the 8 million Cambodians without access to safe drinking water. As a young professional, she thinks it is part of her role to bring the messages from struggling people to the donors and to advocate for impactful change from the government. Sophorn was especially inspired by Virak and has a particular motivation to encourage other young people to become involved in the WASH sector in her career..

The developing professional

Rov Sokkhai is a project officer with me at RainWater Cambodia. It is his first job since finishing university, however, while he was studying he volunteered with an organisation that worked with people with HIV. Sokkhai works to implement water and sanitation projects in the field with local communities that are funded by international donors.

Rov Sokkhai

Following up, software and behaviour change are very important because after you leave they will have better education which stays
Rov Sokkhai

To Sokkhai, changing behaviour is a crucial element to any WASH program and he believes that engaging with local people is the best way to leave a lasting impact. He is fully aware of the role he plays as an implementer and as a person engaging with local people. Through working with him, I can attest to his deep empathy for everyone and his genuine motivation to help others.

After Sokkhai had completed his degree in Rural Development, he chose to work in water and sanitation as he believed this was where he could have the most impact for people experiencing poverty. His commitment to the WASH sector is reflected in his goals for the next five years which include supporting RainWater Cambodia and continuing his education. He is excited about the sustainable growth of the RainWater Cambodia to expand their water and sanitation program in Cambodia. Secondly, he dreams of completing a Masters program in another country.

The resourceful manager

Hort Navy is an Investment Manager for a consulting firm encouraging investment in essential services for Cambodians through subsidies. She is relatively new to this role having worked in it for six months. Previously, she was a researcher and worked in marketing for a children’s’ book publisher. Navy is very excited to learn more about the WASH sector. She realises the importance of ensuring the financial sustainability of water and sanitation infrastructure by increasing local people’s ownership and the value they place on these services.

Hort Navy

Many interventions create community and infrastructure, but it is not sustainable because the community don’t have the strong ownership or incentive to make it work. Making it sustainable is the most important thing.
Hort Navy

Navy grew up in a household without a toilet, which has made her very aware of the difficulties faced when you do not have access to WASH services. In her previous role as a researcher, she learned about the long-term impacts to careers and productivity when children do not have proper access to clean water and good sanitation. She believes that access to clean water should be the first step, as it makes sanitation and hygiene inventions possible, and that helping people to adapt and continue good sanitation and hygiene practice is also essential.

Navy recognises that WASH interventions must be sustainable in terms of their ongoing operations and maintenance. She believes that market-based interventions are the best way to increase the sense of ownership and commitment to water and sanitation, but consideration needs to be given to people who cannot afford services.

What we can learn from young water professionals from Cambodia

The community focus that Sophorn, Sokkhai, and Navy show demonstrates how important engagement and behaviour change are in delivering sustainable water and sanitation services. Understanding the connection between water and sanitation services, and health and education outcomes, and how this empowers community members, should be innate.

Sophorn, Sokkhai, and Navy teach us that the real impact of water and sanitation services is in the economic benefits that local people experience through increased productivity combined with the psychological benefits of making people feel valued.

My experience in the Australian water industry is that we often think of the provision of water and sewerage services as a means that justifies its own end. We have less connection with the broader benefits that water services provide, and it is important to be reminded of the role water services play in empowering people to achieve their full potential.

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