PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, is home to over 170 floating villages. For their residents, water is central to their lives. Fishing the lake provides both food and an income, while the lake water is used for washing, cooking and drinking. But the lake acts also as an open-air bathroom, and that makes the lake a permanent health hazard for the 300,000 people who live on it.
A staggering one in five of all children in Cambodia under the age of five dies of diarrhea, according to Unicef Cambodia. Exposure to wastewater is one of the principal causes of diarrheal diseases, putting the children of the Tonle Sap floating villages at high risk of becoming another grim statistic.
Now, though, there is hope that the number of deaths from diarrhea can be cut, thanks to the development of innovative floating toilets developed by Wetland Works! (WW!). A social enterprise founded by American Taber Hand, WW! is backed by a grant to WaterAid Cambodia from Canada’s Grand Challenges for Global Health Fund.
Khmer Times went to the remote Akol floating village in Pursat province in order to learn more about the floating toilets, and the benefits and challenges related to them.
“Akol is where we started,” said Taber Hand. “I was a freshwater programs advisor at Conservation International and they had a floating research station at Akol.
That was when I thought this would be a place where ideas like the floating toilets could be practical.”
Mr. Hand, who holds a Ph.D in Ecological Economics, said it took two years of research before they were ready to launch the HandyPod, the name given to the floating toilets and the system that cleans the wastewater. Looking like a child’s paddling pool, the HandyPod has hyacinths in it that act to clean the wastewater.
Floating Toilets and Flowers
Small floating flowerbeds decorate the backyards of some of the 30-odd wooden houses comprising Akol village. You have to look closely to see that the flowerbeds are connected to pipes coming from the toilets. Those pipes transfer human waste to an almost oxygen-free container where it is treated to three days of bacterial cleansing.
Then, the final treatment takes place in the HandyPod, where the remaining bacteria sticks to the roots of the water hyacinths, allowing the final depuration and the absorption of odors.
“It’s a natural treatment process which follows what happens in the wetlands naturally,” said Mr. Hand.
Mr. Hand said the biggest challenge is that the residents of the floating villages face having to pay around $50 to have their own toilets. Mr. Hand is aware of the significant cost and pointed out that microfinance opportunities are available.
Moreover, he stressed that if villagers can afford satellite dishes, stereo systems, televisions and new gear for their fishing, they should ask themselves what the cost of their health, and that of their children, is worth.
“When the water level is low it is hugely pathogenic, but kids are still swimming in it, and they get all types of diarrhea,” said Mr. Hand. “There’s the mortality factor but also, even without showing symptoms, their guts become inflamed and they cannot process nutrients. This can lead to stunted growth and lower IQs and all types of health and development problems.”
Voices from Villagers
Puthea Khon, WW! project manager, told Khmer Times that they started testing the efficiency and resistance of their sanitation systems at Akol, because it’s a very remote village and exposed to high winds. That made for a challenging test environment.
Families whose houses were strong enough to support the wooden structure of the floating toilets were given free sanitation.
“Since we have our floating toilet, my children are healthier,” said 33-year-old mother Rin Channy. “The biggest problem we had was that they got diarrhea and vomited because the water was very dirty.”
Keo Sophanny, a 28-year-old mother of two daughters, also noticed the benefits of having a toilet, including better health, more comfort, privacy and a restored sense of dignity.
“It’s much easier now that we have a toilet at home, our quality of life has improved a lot,” she said.
Every two weeks, Mr. Khon comes to Akol to take samples of the water. Within 24 hours, these are analyzed at the WW! laboratory at the Pannasastra University and compared with samples taken from Kampong Prak village, which has no sanitation system.
“Results of our analysis show that the quality of the water from the village with the HandyPods is always higher compared to the others,” said Mr. Khon.
Children are the people most at risk catching diarrhea-related diseases from contaminated water. (KT Photo: Jonathan Pannetier)
HandyPods look like small floating gardens and are a natural sanitation system. The blue tarp privacy screen encloses a ceramic pour-flush latrine on the houseboat. (KT Photo: Jonathan Pannetier)