A Cambodian public official has weathered assassination threats and a slow-moving bureaucracy in this post-conflict country to create one of the most trusted and safest water supply systems in Asia. "It was bureaucratic and it was full of incompetent staffers," Ek Sonn Chan (right), director of Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) said of the organisation he joined in October 1993. "I fired many staff and my friends told me that I would be assassinated." But the 57-year-old ‘water champion’, as Asian Development Bank (AsDB) hailed him, prevailed and transformed the authority into a model public water utility in Asia. For his work, he was awarded the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The Phnom Penh water authority has been lauded for its efficiency and productivity. Likewise, it was able to increase its consumer base by radically transforming a decrepit and war-torn water supply system into a model public sector water utility that provides 24-hour safe drinking water to the Cambodian capital, including its poor communities. Under Ek Sonn Chan’s leadership, the Phnom Penh water authority now provides 90 percent water coverage to some 1.4 million residents of the Cambodian capital and its outskirts. "My dream in the government service is I want people across the country to receive enough water of high quality," Chan said in an interview at his modest government office.
During the Khmer Rouge years from 1975 to 1979, there was no stable and adequate water supply to speak of. Many of the country’s water production, distribution facilities and equipment were destroyed, while many of its qualified personnel were also killed. The Khmer Rouge is held responsible for the deaths of more than 1.5 million people, and was booted out when Vietnam invaded the country in 1979. When Chan joined the Phnom Penh water authority in 1993, it was supplying water to 40 percent of the city area and serving merely 20 percent of the total population. Water supply was at best intermittent and available for just 10 hours a day. "Now I have sufficient water to use," said Ly Korm, who lives in Chamkarmon district here in the capital. "In 1993, I didn’t have 24-hour water supply and at the time, when the electricity was cut, the water supply was also cut." "Some powerful people who had high positions within the authority did not pay their bills. Some people made illegal connections," recalled Chan, adding that the rate of water lost through the system was 72 percent. Today, the situation is quite different. Consumers pay their bills in full, and both the soft and hard infrastructure for the city’s water system are in place. Chan said that the PPWSA also collects almost all the bills due it. "We have lost only seven percent, it’s very minor. If we compare this to other countries, they lose about 20 percent (through uncollected charges)," he noted. Chan said PPWSA produces 235,000 cubic metres of water daily, serving about 1.4 million people in the city. He added that there are 160,000 connections across Phnom Penh and in the city outskirts, courtesy of the 1,500-km water pipe network in Phnom Penh.
"The situation has improved much, from no running water to tap water at an affordable price," Chan Samnang, a resident of Russei Keo district, said, while looking back at the last 10 years. However, despite assurances from the water authority that the water is safe to drink, she is not confident about drinking from the tap. But Ek Sonn Chan said: "In any place where you turn on the tap, you can drink the water right away. I’ve been drinking tap water without boiling for six years already. I’m safe"."If you get a stomachache after drinking the tap water, I’ll pay you compensation," he added, addressing the city’s residents. He believes that it is an economic imperative that potable tap water be available to the poor. "Now the poor communities drink water from the tap and save five US dollars a month from not buying firewood." The Phnom Penh water authority has conducted tests for bacteria in water from 30 different places, but the results were negative, Chan added. Apart from providing safe drinking water to the poor, the water authority - untypical for a public utility - is also making a modest profit. It earned about 3.5 million dollars in 2006, and expects to make 4 million dollars this year. "My business is growing. I am making more and more profits for the government," boasted Chan. He expressed confidence that by 2020, the Phnom Penh water authority will be able to provide 100 percent water coverage within Phnom Penh and its suburbs.