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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.

Cambodia isn’t the only country navigating these straits. In March, the WHO called for a worldwide overhaul of its sanitation strategy: now, the group said, the situation can be improved with a market-based approach that would spur innovation. That makes good timing for Lien Aid, which has been pioneering sanitation concepts.

The WHO also noted that many rural Cambodians aren’t exactly fond of modern toilets. Some see latrines as smelly and filthy, preferring to defecate in the wild because they think it’s more natural.

“It’s not a poverty issue. Some wealthy people in the countryside don’t have good sanitation, and some poor families do have it,” said Chea Samnang, director of rural healthcare for the Ministry of Rural Development. “It’s an issue of access to the right information.”

But NGOs and the government say they’ve been making progress educating locals, by using films and sending teachers. Now, it’s a matter of reinforcing that knowledge. “The villagers already understood the lack of fishes in the lake was caused by their poop,” said Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, a non-profit also based in Singapore.

The main problem, he added, is that “old habits take time to change.”

Recently, the group has been tinkering with its bucket design to improve one unforeseen flaw: that there were few viable spots to deposit feces elsewhere for more treatment. “We had to rethink our initial idea to set up a land-based site as there were practical issues of year-round access,” said Ani of Lien Aid.

To fix that problem, Ani’s organization (alongside Engineers Without Borders Australia) is exploring a new project to top off its gallery of floating contraptions: a floating “containment site” for feces and waste.

This year, Lien Aid is also encountering problems with its treatment plant — because the Mekong River has reached its lowest level in 50 years. Drought required the community to move the water intake pipe much closer to the riverbed. “This has resulted in the plant taking in raw water that has very high turbidity,” said Ani. He was referring to the cloudiness of water caused by solids, which is a common test for water quality.

“To accommodate this, the plant was moved several times and the quantity of alum [a chemical compound] to the sedimentation process was also increased to cope with the higher turbidity,” he added. “The higher turbidity has also resulted in a stronger earthy smell to the water.”

Lien Aid is still determining a price for the latrines. The NGO hopes costs can be kept to a minimum, with families possibly purchasing building material in bulk to keep down costs.

One-third of Cambodians live on less than $0.50 a day, according to government statistics, making cost a significant factor.

Villagers in Cambodia have already been learning how to construct cheaper latrines for as little as $15 each from the community-led total sanitation program, started in 2005 by UNICEF and Cambodia’s Ministry of Rural Development. If Cambodians transition in full force to the new latrines, that could be an impetus to take on the floating toilets.