Water for Cambodia

Delivering filters Monday morning February 10th in Siem Reap, Cambodia was a typically hot and sunny day. Laura and I went to the Water for Cambodia office with Beth and Kevin to see the work firsthand and help install some water filters. At the office, we saw the truck which delivers the concrete filters and the bags of gravel and sand for the filters being loaded up. We soon headed out in our van with a couple of expert WFC installers and some equipment. There's really no point in waiting for the sun to get any higher when you're working outdoors in Cambodia.

[Note that the small pictures are provided so things load fast, even over dialup or in the third world. You really want to try clicking on pictures of interest to see the larger ones. You'll generally get a much bigger version of the same scene (in a different browser window or tab), sometimes a picture which is slightly zoomed out, and sometimes even a completely different picture of the same scene which seemed better for the desired information! You might want to increase your browser width to around 1400 pixels, if it's smaller and you have the pixels, to see the full detail. If some of the text is obscured by the pictures, and you're using Internet Explorer, try Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox instead. I didn't take any of the pictures myself, and this web page would be nothing without the photographic efforts of Laura, Beth, and Kevin. The ability to merge their photos was very helpful.]

Customer # 1 We drove for maybe 10 or 15 minutes on some pretty good paved roads before turning down a quite passable dirt road. It wasn't long before we came to the residence of our first customer, as shown. Notice the medical poster at the front; I'm not sure what it says, but it's clearly a public health measure. That looks like a pretty nice house, and it's in a prime location right by the good dirt road. You might wonder why someone who can afford a nice house with a tile patio and some nice looking mahogany woodwork would need one of the low-tech WFC water filters. After all, the next town north of my hometown is Carlisle, MA, which doesn't provide public water or sewer service. Everyone seems to do fine with their own private septic systems and wells.

Filter ready to set up I'm not a civil engineer, but keep in mind that there are probably a lot more people and animals per acre in Cambodia than in Carlisle with its one- and two-acre lots. It's also a safe bet that septic systems are not required and inspected in the villages in Cambodia. Also, I suspect that the water table may be a lot higher in Cambodia, at least some of the year. Putting it all together, when you dig a well you may get some clear water, but the number of harmful organisms residing within it will be substantial. In the picture, Laura and I are surveying the new filter standing in a prominent place just off the patio. In the next picture, some of the residents and their animals are checking things out. Residents There are a lot of dogs in Cambodia, but there are not a lot of rabies vaccinations. It's a good idea to avoid contact with them, which we did. The residents have paid about $7 for the filter, which motivates them to take care of it, and indicates that they really want it. The total cost of the filters is closer to $70, subsidized by donations to WFC.

Cleaning sand After the filter is installed in a level position, the next step is to clean the dirt from the coarse and fine gravel and sand using the local well water, usually provided in the ubiquitous five-gallon buckets. In the picture, I'm closely observing Kevin, Laura, and an WFC staffer cleaning some sand. So far it seems that my role in this entire day was just as an observer, and you already know that I didn't take any pictures, but I promise that I did some actual work, as well! Notice the toddler playing with the dog in the background. I guess nobody told her about rabies.

Filter flow test After the filter is filled with the proper amount of the various grades of sand and gravel, the final test is the flow test, to make sure that the water is flowing at the right rate. Water is poured in the top, and it flows out the spout which is connected internally to the bottom of the filter. I assume that too much flow might mean that the filtering system wasn't packed down tight enough, and too little might mean that the sand wasn't cleaned sufficiently. We installed four filters, and all of them passed the rate test. We had some very experienced installers supervising us and I'm sure that had a lot to do with it. In the picture Kevin is checking the flow rate by timing how long it takes the bottle to fill up. I'm holding a clear hose and funnel used to backflush some dilute bleach solution through the copper tube to clean it.

Filter flow test Our work was done at house number one, so we packed up our stuff and walked down the road to the next one. A great thing about visiting a place like Cambodia is that there is no shortage of new and interesting things to see. Sure, you might say, you were only there for five days at this point, so wasn't everything new and interesting? Fair enough, but we saw a few things that even Beth and Kevin hadn't seen in over two years of living in Cambodia. A case in point is shown in this picture of Kevin, me, and a WFC staffer walking down the road with a sugar palm tapper. (in the blue shorts). He has the long bamboo cylinders which store the palm sap, and at left is a bamboo ladder going up the palm tree which he climbs to tap the tree. Vendors selling this stuff at the market are common, but it's not so common to see the tappers and the trees. Imagine climbing this tree barefoot. (Click on the image to see the big image and get a better idea of the size of the trees, as well as to see two bamboo ladders going up the palms). We never tried it because the conditions under which the sap is collected and handled may not be sanitary enough to agree with the intestinal tracts of westerners. We were bigger on bottled water. Some do boil the sap down to make sugar, similar to maple syrup.

Customer #2 Loading sand After this interesting diversion, we arrived fairly quickly at our next house. The WFC plan was obviously to do a group of houses at walking distances. This one was also on the main dirt road, just a little further down, but was obviously not as fancy an abode as the first one. Rather than a two-story, it was an elevated one-story, a common design. Clearly underneath is a nice place for the family to congregate during the hot day, and I'd guess it provides some protection from flooding in lower areas. The filter was positioned right under the house, as can be seen in this picture of Kevin and me handing cleaned sand to the WFC guy to carefully place into the filter.

Nobody home After completing the second install, we walked just a little further down the dirt road, and then took a footpath straight into the village, and then to the right to our next potential house. It looked like we were dropping down the socioeconomic ladder, since from a distance this thatched-roof abode looked like it was one windstorm away from falling down, compared to the first two. The filter and the sand and gravel were there OK, but there were no residents to be found, either in the house or in the near vicinity. WFC needs to discuss the installation and use of the filter with the homeowners to assure effectiveness, so installing it without them was not an option. Our leaders ordered us to skip this one and proceed to the next location. They probably got theirs installed a few days or a week later.

What would the WFC staffers have told the residents if they were there and we had installed the filter? I'm not exactly sure since I don't speak Khmer, but they might have told them that a biofilm at the top of the filter helps with the process, and that the fine sand filters out the parasites and most of the bacteria before they get to the bottom of the filter. They might have mentioned that at the bottom of the filter the lack of food and oxygen tends to kill off the remaining bacteria. I'm sure they would have told them that they can't drink the water for a month, and that when they do, they should pour five gallons of well water into the filter, and capture five gallons with a clean container at the spout while pouring in the well water. They would have also told them that they shouldn't do this more than once every two hours. That could give up to 60 gallons of water a day (if you get up at night), a pretty good quantity. Probably they would tell them when they need to test the water, since that's part of the process.

Backtracking just a little and then continuing in the direction away from the dirt road we arrived at this house under construction. Customer #3 It's got an interesting tile roof, and some nice concrete pillars; I bet the termites won't eat those. If you look carefully, you see an extra, short pillar right in the middle which you can probably recognize by now as a water filter. These guys are getting in on the ground floor, with potable water! Things went pretty routinely in cleaning the sand and gravel, which we did away from the building project, near their well. We had to get the builders to stand down while we loaded up the filter since we didn't bring our hard hats!

Customer #4 Three generations of residents We decided to do one last house, which was another one off the beaten path, with a lot of vegetation close to the house. The picture shows Laura hard at work cleaning sand while several of the rest of us bring some water buckets. It's a pretty water-intensive process. The house is in the background, and the filter was right up against the house, blocked by the people in this picture. The residents were a friendly group, and we took this picture of the sisters Beth and Laura with matching hats, pants, and WFC T-shirts with three generations of the residents. They were very interested in (and somewhat mystified by) the fact that Laura and Beth only had two children each!

If you want to see the different water filter steps in video form, start the video below. It's not a single filter installation, just the best video of the various steps from the different filters that we installed.

Three generations of residents Bees in tree We were only doing a half day, since Kevin had some meetings in the afternoon and Laura and I thought we might go take a look at a local tourist attraction called "Angkor Wat" that you might have heard about. We headed back to the office in the van. The picture shows the WFC office; note the tree about halfway back near the table and chairs. It looks like a nice source of shade for WFC visitors, but the new director was a little concerned about what he saw directly overhead maybe 15 or 20 feet in that tree: a large swarm of bees! He actually knew a bee expert in another part of Cambodia, who in an ideal world might have come by and removed the bees, but upon contact the expert had no interest in the bees! I don't know what happened to the bees, but probably the zoomed in big picture has enough information for a bee expert to identify them. (The Internet suggests that "giant honeybees" are a good candidate; the "giant" adjective describes these bees pretty well!)

Plastic Filters

Here's a closer picture of the office; note the four blue cylinders in the front to the right of the two standard concrete filters The former are experimental water filters made of plastic for use at the floating villages which we had visited the day before. If you're floating, your houseboat might not have the capacity to take a filter as heavy as the concrete ones.

Well, that's my take on our short visit to Water for Cambodia. We had fun, saw a lot of interesting things, and certainly gained some insight into what WFC does and who benefits. There's a lot of disease and infant mortality associated with bad water supplies, and WFC is making a difference. Oh, and if you ever visit WFC in Siem Reap, you might want to stop by that Angkor Wat thing. It's also worth a look!

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Page last updated October 12, 2013
Related links: Traveling to Asia / Jet Lag - Prince Sihanouk - The Khmer Rouge Era - Ecotour of the Floating Villages Water for Cambodia Angkor Temples and Siem Reap