Virak Chan interview: decentralisation and capacity development in the Cambodian water sector and beyond

An interview with Virak Chan, a water and sanitation specialist with the World Bank. In this interview, Virak discusses decentralisation reforms and water resources management in Cambodia, as well as a new initiative called the Center for Sustainable Water aimed at building local capacity in the water sector.

Interview topics

  • About Virak Chan
  • Virak’s role with the World Bank as a water sector focal point
  • About the Center for Sustainable Water and what it aims to do
  • Founding a new organisation with limited resources
  • The ‘water corner’: an informal knowledge sharing network in Cambodia
  • The challenges of water resource management in the Mekong
  • Water leadership in Cambodia
  • How to get involved with the Center for Sustainable Water

How did you come to be involved in water management, and what is your role in improving water and sanitation in Cambodia?

I come from a business development background. After working to support poor communities through a number of community development projects in different organizations I then became a project analyst at the World Bank helping private water operators improve their capacity to operate their water businesses properly. From these projects, I started learning about water and about issues relating to water. That made me want to become more involved in the water sector. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study in Australia for a masters degree in integrated water management, hosted by the University of Queensland and managed by the International WaterCentre. On graduating, I truly became a ‘water guy’, and now am a specialist in water and sanitation.

I manage projects which particularly focus on strengthening government capacity in developing water and sanitation. My role is to support policy development and reform in relation to decentralisation. I also work on water resource management projects in Cambodia, acting as a country ‘focal point’ coordinating the projects with the stakeholders in the water resource sectors.

My work helps the government to identify on-the-ground problems, so they can be discussed with the sector partners — it links the government to the reality out in the field. That means the government has the knowledge to inform policy development and policy implementation. As an example, my work is to provide technical assistance to the subnational government to deliver rural sanitation services. We support their planning and budgeting of sanitation works and activities, monitor their progress, as well as community uptake of sanitation. We work closely with people in the community, especially with women and children, to implement sanitation activity. Through this experience, we have been able to diagnose how local government can deliver the rural sanitation service sustainably and effectively.

The lessons that we have gathered through this field experience have been communicated at the national level, including via meetings of all stakeholders to discuss what is happening on the ground and via studies at the national level to enable the government to recognize the role of local government. In other words, through what you might call a ‘bottom-up approach’, we are collecting the experience of local communities to inform national government and key stakeholders. This work has resulted in considerable interest from the national government and continued support for the idea of local government carrying out water and sanitation functions on behalf of the national government. And we are seeing definite proof of leadership development in this water and sanitation project, especially from the local government.

Can you tell us about the Center for Sustainable Water, how it started and what it does?

The Center for Sustainable Water was established to help build up Cambodia’s human resources in the water sector. There are so many issues relating to water that need to be tackled and solved; yet people have been receiving comparatively little education and training in water-related subjects, including at university level. The Center for Sustainable Water provides a platform or hub for people who are interested in water-related topics. They can see that water is really important, and then they can receive training to help generate better knowledge about water.

The center is open to interested volunteers, university students, and junior practitioners. They come to learn about water-related aspects of their work, through the knowledge-building and capacity-building projects in our courses on water and sanitation. We run a program called ‘Young Professionals in WASH’ that trains junior practitioners and university students who come from different water-related backgrounds. The objective of that program is first to get the participants interested in working in the water and sanitation sectors. Then, once they understand more about water and sanitation, and recognize the issues and can identify solutions, the knowledge would help them improve work performance and enable them to contribute more to the sector.

When young engineers graduated, for example, there may not have been much of a market for water and sanitation engineering, or perhaps they didn’t know about such jobs in Cambodia, and so they moved into civil work such as concrete design or construction. Now that the center provides capacity-building, several of the program participants have applied for and been given jobs in the water and sanitation sector. This example shows the kind of impact the center is having, building interest in — and commitment in — working in water and sanitation.

The center is an independent and non-profit organization, at least for the time being. We also partner with some universities such as the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and the Pannasastra University. The universities have publicized the Center’s programs and as a result, many program participants have been university students. The universities are interested in longer-term partnerships with us and in providing more formal courses in water and sanitation in the future.

Although the center has quite limited resources, it taps as much as possible into my networks and my relationships with water experts in Cambodia, both international and local. Our trainers are very committed and have a common vision of strengthening the capacity of the younger generation to work in water and sanitation.

The ‘Young Professionals in WASH’ program lasts for 8 weeks. The first 7 weeks comprise both in-class training and field visits to see the practical implementation of water and sanitation projects. In the last week, the participants give a final presentation of the project ideas they have learnt in weeks 1 to 7. They come up with some very interesting ideas, and it seems that our objectives are being met: stimulating interest in water and sanitation among students who knew little about these sectors at the start of the program.

Anyone who would like to know more about the Center for Sustainable Water can go to the Facebook page for the Center, and click ‘Like’. That provides the information and all the relevant contacts details. Please connect with us.

You have set up a knowledge-sharing network in water and sanitation. Please tell us something about it.

We run knowledge-sharing networking via gatherings that we call a ‘water corner’. The idea behind this initiative is to create an informal platform to bring together professionals and non-professionals in water and the sanitation sector in an informal setting.

Experts working in water resources and water and sanitation are invited to speak at the water corner, which we aim to hold once each month, at a coffee shop. That location is not as stressful to people as, say, a meeting room or other formal venue. The water corner gives people a great deal of freedom to talk with the experts, the guest speakers. Normally, we invite up to three guest speakers to talk about a topic chosen to be of interest to people in the water and sanitation sectors. The audience can drink coffee and listen to the guest speakers, and after the talk, they have the opportunity to build a connection or network with the guest speakers around water and sanitation.

For example, one water corner discussed a topic strongly connected both to the water and sanitation sectors in Cambodia: namely, bringing a piped water supply into rural communities. This is a very pressing issue in Cambodia because only a very small part of the rural area is covered at present by the piped water supply. After the experts had spoken we had a panel discussion and then we opened the floor to participants to ask questions relating to a piped water supply.

For some water corners, we invite our trainers or water champions to speak as well, to really inspire the participants to invest their time and their resources in the water sector. They talk about how to become a water champion to help Cambodia in its management of water. The water corner seems to be the kind of platform that has the potential to be of advantage to both professionals and non-professionals.

In water management in Cambodia, some projects have been implemented very well, but knowledge-sharing from those projects is still limited. That means that the experience gained and the lessons, or even the challenges, are not being passed on to others. The Water Corners are a means by which people can share their experience and learn from each other – not just project-based experience but in relation to general issues and challenges and solutions.

Can you speak about your work integrating water management in the Mekong and in Cambodia — the challenges and opportunities and emerging issues and innovations in implementing integrated water management?

The Mekong River is one of the world’s largest rivers and Cambodia shares its resources with countries and regions including China’s Yunan Province, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, and Viet Nam. The people of each region need to benefit from this water resource. In Cambodia, there is a lot of happening on the Mekong River, such as with hydropower dam development and in regard to fisheries and other opportunities.

Protecting the river’s resources is very important. It is crucial for people to be proactively thinking about managing their part of the Mekong’s resources — and yet the Mekong is not one country’s resource: it is every country’s resource. We need to share the resource with our neighbouring countries, and the challenge is that all the countries need to develop this water resource to benefit their own economic progress. The question is: how to balance the benefit; how to balance the resources between the upstream and the downstream countries? Those are the questions for integrated water management in the Mekong. The answers are important and needed immediately.

The work that I am doing right now is supporting the government to build a database management system to monitor the whole of the Mekong’s water resources: its water quality, sediments, flood control, and everything. The project is trying to develop monitoring tools so that from Cambodia we can know what is happening upstream, and the level of degradation of the waters, so that the government is correctly and timely informed and can be proactive in taking action. I am also working on fisheries management so as to improve the livelihoods of the communities living in the Mekong Basin, integrating water resources, monitoring, and fishery resources. Data that we are gathering through the monitoring process and in relation to fisheries management are an important link between knowledge and program implementation.

I hope these government projects can be the basis for a longer-term program that all the stakeholders can rally behind and work together to solve the problems. In the projects we are working on, we are trying to lay foundations or basic lessons that can be useful to our counterparts elsewhere and in government and in the development partners. Looking ahead, we want to see how we can build up from these foundations.

Many different stakeholders are involved, in different countries and at several levels of governance, and they all need to share the same vision. This adds to the challenge involved in bringing them together to meet. Meeting would not be a silver bullet but it could be an opportunity to look further into what could be done and to find innovations that can minimise the risks to the water resources for each country. There would be opportunities for innovations when there is a dialogue among the partners. If the government and development partners and donors were to collaborate over particular problems in particular regions, they could discuss together how to manage the water resources effectively and sustainably. These kinds of things need to happen, not only at the national level but also at the regional level.

How can people become involved with the Center for Sustainable Water or some of your other initiatives, including supporting leadership development in SE Asia and Cambodia?

The keyword is ‘connectivity’. There is so much knowledge and experience around the globe, in different international and Australian organizations, but there are not many ways to bring that experience and knowledge and those lessons into a country like Cambodia. I am looking for opportunities to make connections and exchange information about what is happening in Cambodia and what we are doing to support better knowledge in the water sector. My aim is to bring as many aspects of globally available knowledge as possible into Cambodia and the region as a whole.

So, to anyone interested in becoming involved, my suggestion is: start making connections and building connectivity through whatever means, whatever networks or platforms you can find, so that we can share our experiences and try to find the best solutions that can be applied in the Cambodian context.

Leadership and commitment are very important in our sector. Putting that into practical terms, leadership means the stakeholders, the owners of a country or of a project, have to really put aside their own interests and instead look at how they can collectively make things happen. In building this kind of leadership I believe we need to also build champions for the water sector. We don’t yet know who the champions will be, but we certainly need champions who can show true leadership and are committed to the results that each country needs and wants.

How Virak become a water leader in Cambodia

Virak has a background in management and worked in social business development supporting poor communities in Cambodia.

Virak first was introduced to the importance of water issues through his work with the World Bank to build the capacity of small-scale water suppliers in Cambodia. He used his skillset of business and financial management enabling providers to improve their business practices so both the coverage and quality of domestic water in Cambodia could be improved.

This inspired him to improve his current knowledge so he could have more impact in this sector and was the basis for his applications to the Australia Awards scholarship program.

He searched for water-related courses in Australia and finally decided upon a Masters of Integrated Water Management at the International WaterCentre where he is currently an alumni ambassador.

This established Virak as a proper ‘water guy’ and a professional in the sector. Currently, he is a water and sanitation specialist; a country focal point for the Mekong Integrated Water Resource Management project; and manages sanitation projects for the World Bank to support the Cambodian Government with decentralization reforms.

Decentralization of rural sanitation in Cambodia

As a focal point, Virak co-ordinates stakeholder involvement in a large sanitation project in Cambodia: engaging the development partner group, and leading the behaviour change communication for rural sanitation group to develop the capacity of the Cambodian government at national and sub-national level through decentralization policies.

Virak sees this as a ‘bottom-up’ process, where feedback from the implementation of policy can be used to adapt the role of partners in the water sector and how the policy is implemented in an ongoing way based on reality in the field.

In this decentralization work, the sub-national government is supported to implement the delivery of rural sanitation services, through leveraging local budget and then monitoring these projects. He works with local focal points like the Commune Councillors for Women and Children (CCWC) who perform active roles in promoting sanitation in communities.

Image source: VBNK Cambodia

What these local leaders learn in the field is given a platform at the national level and stakeholders come together here to understand how they can understand and support the role of local governments who are the front line of addressing sanitation coverage. The role of the national government is essential to motivate and provide incentives at the local level to participate in decisions through the transfer of functions and resources.

The role of the World Bank here cover a lot of territory but what is consistent is the aim of decentralization and the input into policy and implementation decisions from local experiences to influence the actions of stakeholders. Some examples include:

About the Center for Sustainable Water

The Center for Sustainable Water is a project that Virak initiated outside of this work with the World Bank, based on the need to develop better local human resources related to water as well as generate knowledge and a focus on water in Cambodia.

“The idea of establishing the Center for Sustainable Water is coming from my own passions of my knowledge gained from different places from the university that I studied, from the experts, water experts that I have interacted with and from different events or conferences that I attended. Cambodia’s human resources in the water sector, is the emerging issue for Cambodia moving forward.”

It is structured in an open way so volunteers, university students and junior practitioners can access the center easily. The center has a young professional program that trains junior practitioners and university students from different water-related backgrounds.

The objective of the program is to get buy-in and create interest in working in water and sanitation sectors and create awareness and a positive culture of knowledge of the sector as seen in the following three short Khmer language (subtitled) youtube videos produced by young people linked to the center.

Many young people in Cambodia graduate with an interest in water and sanitation but think there is not a big job market around water and sanitation or maybe they don’t know there is a market for water and sanitation jobs in Cambodia and this will become much bigger in the future.

The Center for Sustainable Water partner with universities such as the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) and Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). In the future, they would aim to move from the soft course program to a formal education program relating to water. There is a need for Cambodia now and in the future for sustainable water management.

The center is also engaged in work a little broader than capacity building through knowledge sharing network events called water corners. The idea of a Water Corner is trying to create an informal platform that can bring in professional and non-professionals in water to come and meet together and network.

About the Mekong and the region more broadly – key challenges and opportunities for Integrated Water Management.

“The Mekong is the 3rd largest river in the world and we see as the resource of different countries like China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is very important for people in each country to benefit from these resources. The Mekong River is not one country’s resource, it is every country’s resource. So how to balance the benefit, how to balance the resources, from the upstream to the downstream countries. Integrated water management in the Mekong is quite important to build cooperation and sustain equal benefits among riparian countries.

One important challenge is knowledge management. Virak works with the government support the building the database management system to monitor the water resources as a whole related to water quality, sediments, flood control and everything else.

Another challenge is enhancing fisheries management to improve the livelihoods of the people living in the Mekong Basin. These two projects are integrated.

Opportunities for innovation arise through partnership and collaboration between the government, development partners and donors come together to solve problems and share information from the region. There are opportunities when dialogue happens about managing water resources effectively and sustainably not just at the country level but also at the regional level.

One of the limitations in terms of innovation in water resources management is knowledge management and knowledge sharing. Experience, lessons and challenges are not really easy to articulate well or share wisely with others. It is worthwhile for water stakeholders to understand and learn from each other.

Water Leadership in Cambodia

We need to do what we can to support the ownership of these issues by the government. The role of leadership is very important. Knowledge is a tool that can transform leadership and commitment. Leadership means the stakeholder, the owners of the country, of the project have to really put aside their egoism and look at how to move forward collectively to make things happen.

There some proof of leadership in Cambodia especially from local government. They have really proved that they can do the job. Water is a priority area that leaders and other stakeholders are focusing on.

It starts with connectivity. There are so much knowledge and experience in Australia and around the world, but bringing this experience, knowledge and lessons into a country like Cambodia is still limited. The Center for Sustainable Water is a good place to start.

“I would suggest anyone who hears the interview to connect and provide more information about what is happening in Cambodia and share knowledge about water so we can bring different angles of knowledge from a global perspective into Cambodia and the Mekong region. This is my suggestion, to create connectivity through whatever networks or platforms we can to share experiences together and try to discover the best solutions for the Cambodian context.”

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Interview quotes

 

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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