Improving sanitation in Cambodia’s floating villages, one village at a time

By: UNIID SEA - 2014-06-26

By Earvin Delgado

The Floating Toilet Project in Cambodia was one of the innovation projects supported by the Science and Technology Innovation for the Base of the Pyramid in Southeast Asia (iBoP Asia) in 2009, and is one of the case studies featured in the book “Pathways Out of Poverty: Innovating with the BoP in Southeast Asia”, published in 2012. 

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The ‘floating villages’ of Tonle Sap

Within the area of Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great lake as well as Southeast Asia’s largest, lies a challenge for safe sanitation practices among its locals. Surrounding the lake’s area are the famous ‘floating villages.’

Riding a local boat, one can see numerous ‘floating houses’ which could either be built on boats, or over very tall stilts. The way of life in these floating villages very much revolves around the resources of the great lake. The lake not only serves as the area where the residents interact with one another or be a source of income. Its most important role is providing food and drinking water to the locals.

A threat to the lake and its people

Behind the beaming smiles of the locals is a sanitation concern. According to a case study by Korea International Corporation Agency (KOICA), only 16 percent of those living in the rural parts of Cambodia have access to proper toilets. Eleven millions lack access to improved sanitation, and what’s alarming is that the main cause of sickness and death among children is none other than diarrhea. A large part of human activities in floating communities involve the lake’s waters. The people in the area live in a challenging environment when it comes to implementation of safe sanitation procedures.

The very same water that the residents use for drinking, bathing and washing is also where they dispose their wastes. These wastes would be disposed directly from the houses into the lake. This practice is a serious threat to the health of the locals and the lake’s environment.

With the sanitation concerns in the villages, Live & Learn Environmental Education Cambodia, in partnership with Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB), designed floating latrines and a floating community waste management station. This station will be treating human wastes appropriately before they are brought back to the environment. Ideally, the wastes will be stored in the barge for a minimum of six months. This is the time required for human waste to be safely used for fertilizers.

This project, Tonle Sap Floating Waste and Sanitation Treatment Barge, aims to be a platform for developing innovative ways and practices that will be of benefit for floating communities. It also aims to produce waste management practices that are culturally-acceptable, affordable and most importantly, sustainable for future use.

The area of Phat Sanday Commune in the Kampong Thom province was selected as the first beneficiary. A lot of factors led to the selection of the said commune such as the high level of environmental awareness and concern among the residents, interest in putting up latrines in the community, and their links to earlier environmental projects organized by international organizations.

Forming a positive relationship with residents in the area was important as it enabled them to understand how the community’s comprehends the concept of sanitation, as well as to determine whether the proposed sanitation practices were acceptable in the community or not.

Planning, developing and constructing the floating waste management station and latrines

Prior to the construction of the waste management station itself was the development of the floating latrines or toilets. Fourteen prototype floating latrines, where each new prototype incorporated improvements from previous ones, were built and tested. It was also important to use local materials in designing the latrines rather than import ready-made ones to empower the community to customize and improve the latrines. In every step of the way the community was involved in the development.

One of the important goals of the project was to increase the residents’ awareness and knowledge regarding sanitation. With the development of the latrine designs, the project team also educated the users on how to maintain the latrines and the importance of sanitation. These sessions were mostly held in the primary and secondary schools of Phat Sanday.

The construction of the barge begun with review of various waste treatment options used in other parts of the world. Workshops and discussions were conducted to see the community’s feedback to each treatment method, and to see its suitability to the commune. Water and sanitation engineers were also consulted.

The floating barge was designed with the wet and dry seasons in mind. It has to be able to keep afloat despite the changing water levels and tropical storms. The size of the facility was determined by the commune’s population. Wood was chosen as the primary material for the barge’s construction. Various factors such as availability, price, strength, expected life and ease of construction factors were considered for the selection of the primary material. The construction phase was met with strong community engagement with their involvement in the construction itself, as well as the design.

The power of community engagement should not be discounted

Because of the mutual engagement of the project team and the members of the community, the creation of the world’s first community-based waste treatment barge was achieved. Having strong rapport and cooperation with the community was very important in making the project possible. They were with the project team in every step of barge’s development and the creation of the prototype latrines. With the completion of the barge’s construction, the project anticipates a number of positive health and environmental impacts. Being also the first of its kind, more lessons can be learned, and recommendations be developed regarding improved sanitation practices in floating villages such as Phat Sanday Commune.

Overall, the more involved the community was with the project, the better it developed. After all it is the community who will be using, maintaining and benefiting from the project in the long run. With this in mind, the value of community involvement in innovative projects such as this cannot be discounted – and that is the most important lesson learned from the project.

From Phat Sanday to the rest of the world

‘Floating villages’ are not a rare sight in Southeast Asia. A number can be found outside Cambodia’s great lake. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia also have similar communities. Innovations in tackling sanitation challenges in more floating communities should be explored in the future.

Helpful references and sources:

Live & Learn Environmental Education and EWB Australia’s Presentation

KOICA, UNEP and Center for Advanced Philippine Studies’ Case Study

Inclusive WASH


About the Author


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UNIID-SEA works with universities and research councils in Southeast Asia to promote action research and facilitate the development of programs that support innovation for inclusive development (IID). Contact Info: Ateneo School of Government Pacifico Ortiz Hall, Fr. Arrupe Road, Social Development Complex, Ateneo De Manila University, Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Philippines 1108 Tel: +63 2 426 6001 locals 4646, 4639 Telefax: +63 2 929 7035 Email: info@uniid-sea.net Website: www.uniid-sea.net

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