Days we searched for water in Cambodia

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Liu Yanran is from the Overseas Business Management Department, China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group Co. Ltd (CREEC)

I was rushing around in six provinces in Cambodia for one month from New Year’s Day. Just  before the Chinese Lunar New Year’s Eve, I finally completed all the work and could return home for the Spring Festival. After a long journey of 8,000 kilometres from Phnom Penh to Hami, Xinjiang via Beijing, I saw my little sunshine – my one-year-old son at last. At that moment, I was thinking, though it was very regretful that I could not be with him for one month, I had worked hard to make kids just as adorable as him in another country able to drink clean water. It was worthwhile.

At the request of the Cambodian government, the Chinese government decided to assist Cambodia in constructing water supply facilities in rural areas to solve a shortage in the dry season. Entrusted by the Ministry of Commerce of China, my colleague at CREEC and I were chosen for this mission.

Only two days before New Year’s Eve in 2017, we arrived in Cambodia. Over the coming six months, as the project proceeded, I frequently travelled between Phnom Penh and Beijing.

The main sources of water for locals – pond water and rainwater.

In the first day of our field survey, we start from Phnom Penh to Thbong Khmom and Svay Rieng, a total distance of about 180 kilometres. We visited a number of villages along the way and it took Mr. Keo Sekkun, an officer from the Ministry of Rural Development, 10 full hours of driving to bring us from Phnom Penh to Svay Rieng.

At sunset we finally reached Svay Rieng. We were shocked while getting out of the car – there was a huge lake in front of us.

I asked Mr. Keo Sekkun, “Are all the villages needing well-drilling around the lake?” He said yes and promised he would take us there the next day. I was thinking: are you sure these places lack water?

Having doubts in our minds, we started looking for a place to settle down. When we were in the countryside, we found neither village officers nor villagers could speak English, so it was very difficult to communicate. Luckily, the Commercial Office of the Chinese embassy in Cambodia was very thoughtful and sent a local employee with us, who accompanied us in the whole course of visits, and thanks to his help our work moved forward smoothly to a large extent.

A rural area in Cambodia.

Though we were in the provincial capital, the city is just like a small town in China in terms of size and it was very difficult for us to find a decent hotel. At last, we chose to stop at a hostel which was reconstructed on a Red Cross Society hospital. It was a two-storey building, on which there were still signs of the Red Cross. Our rooms were on the second floor and we even saw a sickbed at the end of the corridor!

There’s no time for us to feel uncomfortable before we opened the door and stepped into the room and suddenly saw a gecko climbing towards us on the wall. My colleague exclaimed loudly “Lizard!”.

It is quite natural for people who have never been to Cambodia to think that Cambodia, a country that boasts of the famous Angkor Wat temple, is an idyllic serene land away from the turmoil of the world. I shared the same view before I set foot in this country.

However, after one week of wandering through the alleys in Cambodian villages, I was worn out and had a more comprehensive understanding of Cambodia apart from the illusion about peaceful pastoral life.

Next morning, we enjoyed some delicious rice noodles at street food shop, while the son of the rice noodle shop’s owner had fried grasshopper and water as his breakfast.

After that, we followed Mr. Keo Sekkun to the village that needed a well drilled, which was about 15 kilometres from the province capital. Thanks to the bumpy pebble and red soil road, I threw up the rice noodles.   

Inhabitants of the village are the elderly, children and women.

When we arrived at the village, I saw a woman with a baby in her arms. The baby looked the same age as my son. So I asked her, what kind of water the baby drinks. She pointed to a huge vat nearby which was full of rainwater and told us they usually drink from there. Then she indicated a little pond in front of her and said they also take water from the pond when running out of rainwater. I was suddenly stricken by a surge of bitterness and pain, since in my opinion, there was merely mud and slurry in that little pond.

After talking with this woman, I realised men in this village were making their living in larger cities and left the women, the children and the elderly behind. Those “left behinds” cannot travel out of the village to find water for lack of vehicles; therefore, their main source of water supply was rainwater and pond-water which had excessive amounts of e-coli bacteria.

Strangely, we saw several wells in the village and wondered why people prefered rainwater?

The truth is, some wells in the village did not have enough depth to pump up water in the dry season. While the water that came out from other wells was heavily polluted by heavy metals. Coincidentally we saw a kid pumping water from one well and we knew he would use the water for cooking. One of my colleagues, who is a water expert, drank some and told us it was very salty. Obviously, it was not up to standard for drinkable water.

Along with the investigation and survey in a dozen or so villages in six provinces, the feasibility study assessment could be considered as having been started officially. But from feedback from Dr Chan Darong, Director General of MRD and the leader of our Cambodian group, they cannot make a feasibility study report. It was so odd to us. After several rounds of communication with DG Chan and Director Por Yutha, an officer with Ministry of Economy and Finance, we understood they do not have experienced technical staff and an operating budget for the feasibility study of the project. Hence, does it meet the qualification to approve the project, some of my colleague asked.

Having meetings at the cafeteria, lobby and corridor in weekend.

There have no questions about the project’s approval, and we have to find some way to solve those problems.

From the site-survey, we found out many scattered engineering investigation information in the provinces and we set drills that can be utilised. In two days, professionals in our group set up outlines and a syllabus of the feasibility study report. I offered our solution to DG Chan and got his support – he assigned the work to his subordinates and directed them to collect data according to our directions.

Though we listed outlines, we found documents returned to us were far below the required profundity to meet the feasibility study requirement.

It was 9pm when I went through the returned Cambodian documents. I was very anxious at that time since I realised the size of the problem. I made a phone call to DG Chan and expected he could send several technical professionals to communicate with us face to face, so as to improve the quality of documents. DG Chan replied immediately that he would call the responsible people one by one, tell them how to implement it at every step and arrange experienced drilling experts to contact us.

Communicating with the local water supply officers, searching and collecting investigation information.

DG Chan’s attitude made me feel a little bit assured, and I even forgot to express a courtesy like “sorry to disturb you at the night” on the phone. Then I was mentally disturbed by my boldness of the phone-call to a high-ranking Cambodian official late at night for a long time. However, at the summing-up meeting of this project, DG Chan spoke highly of that phone-call and said: “Every work began from the phone-call at that night”.

Finally, just three days before the Chinese Lunar New Year, the Cambodian side finished the feasibility study report with our help.

I felt very fortunate to complete our work successfully and owe it to the strong and highly efficient support from both the Chinese government and the Cambodian government.

Our hard working gained recognition from Cambodia. In April, the Ministry of Rural Development of Cambodia sent us a letter of thanks, expressing their gratitude to the CREEC experts who, in Cambodia’s rural water supply feasibility investigation project, overcame the problem of a tight schedule and heavy task, finished reconnaissance trips and site surveys of six provinces in 28 days, helped Cambodians complete the feasibility study report and signed the minutes of the meetings.

The Cambodian side said in the thank you letter: “Experts of CREEC have made an unremitting endeavour in helping us in completing the feasibility study report, which has received recognition and appreciation from our government, making a great contribution to the timely implementation of the project. This project is a significant sign to further strengthen the good bilateral relationship.”

Cambodian officers exchanging information.

I still cannot not forget those days in Cambodia. At that time, we made the best of all the time and locations we went to to have meetings, solve the many problems and sometimes kept working until 3am.

Those days, I am sure, will be always memorable to me.

After the two-month’s feasibility study, on March 28, 2017, China and the Cambodian government signed the rural water supply Phase I project approval and exchanged documents, symbolising the programme stepping into the implementation stage.

On April 25, the Cambodian side finished the tender invitation for construction contractors and issued the notice of the award.

The bid-winner, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), immediately set about transporting geophysical instruments to the sites for the preparation.

On May 12, both parties officially signed the General Construction Contract. Up to now, the CNNC has completed the hydrogeologic investigation and geophysical measurement in five provinces at Phase I.

With the ongoing survey and design, the project is progressing very well.

A photo of my group.
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