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Floating toilets to clean up Cambodia's act

In terms of sanitation, Cambodia has a long way to go: people are still getting used to the idea of a modern latrine.

Floating water treatment plant in Kompong Chhnang, Cambodia. (Photo provided by Lien Aid)

KAMPONG LUONG, Cambodia — Residents of this “floating village,” a spine of stilted shacks and huts crammed atop a tributary of the Mekong River, depend on the water below them for cooking, bathing and gathering fish for meals.

Too bad they defecate in that water — a practice that helps make diarrhea one of the three leading causes of death in Cambodia for children under five.

The solution? Build a toilet that floats. And while we’re at it, construct a water treatment plant that also floats. At least that’s what one NGO, Singapore-based Lien Aid, says will finally clean up the water supply.

A typical river toilet is an open hole on wooden planks emptying directly into the river. By contrast, the Lien Aid toilet uses buckets to collect the waste, separating urine from feces, to reduce the bulk. Villagers then sprinkle soil, ash, or wood chips to dry the feces, decompose it, and keep out pathogens.

Villagers can even use their urine as a grass fertilizer. How efficient!

But, said Lien Aid head Sahari Ani, “we realized that it was equally important to ensure that the floating community gets access to clean drinking water.” So they began building the water treatment plant.

The floating plant, which is owned by the entire community, sucks in raw water from the river below, then filters it and cleanses it of microbes with ultraviolet radiation. Lien Aid and the government even gave the water its own brand name: Lotus Water, priced at 700 riel ($0.17) for 20 liters — half the price of what villagers paid before.

Given that everything else in the village floats, the projects make sense. The community has floating gas stations, police stations and even churches. Homes in river communities are typically built on floating platforms and are moved seasonally as water levels rise and fall.

Poor water quality and sanitation facilities have taken a toll on Cambodia. The country has one of the highest infant and under-5 mortality rates in the region, at 97 and 141 per 1,000 live births, UNICEF reported.

It is also one of the few countries in Asia that probably won’t meet its sanitation Millennium Development Goal, which calls for the country to halve the percentage of the population that lacks access to toilets by 2015, revealed a report by the World Health Organization.

Reading further, the situation appears more ominous. Almost one-third of Cambodians have access to proper toilets, the report added. In 2008 the World Bank said that nearly 10,000 people in Cambodia die each year from diarrhea and other diseases that arise from poor sanitation. In economic terms, that’s a loss of about $450 million a year, or the equivalent of 7.2 percent of the country’s GDP.