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Ketsana – A Blessing in Disguise for Some

Stung Treng, Cambodia _ Somewhere in a small, remote village where everyone has been more or less affected by Typhoon Ketsana since September last year, there was at least one family that saw the disaster as a life-saving incident.

Heun Chan Doeun with Oxfam water filter

Posing in front of the water filter, Heun Chan Doeun, 31, shyly admitted that it was not really properly placed as it was in direct sunlight and kids sometimes dipped their hands into it. “Still it improves our health,” confirmed the mother of six.

With five young children to feed and one waiting to come out in a few months, Heun Chan Doeun, 31, found the idea of spending 40,000 Riel ($10) on a water filter almost impossible despite the doctor’s order that her husband must not drink boiled water or he would suffer from a kidney stone again.For months, Heun had to endure seeing her husband in pain. With an average annual income of around 840,000 Riel ($210) or less, a regular hospital visit was out of the question and painkillers had become a necessity along with rice, seasonings, and gasoline for the family’s motorbike.

Ironically, the size of the family and lack of land had made them get a motorbike in a hope to find more work outside the district. But paying 5,000 Riel for gasoline each time meant only three-fourth of their wage was left for foods and medicines.

There were also times they had to sell chickens and pigs as the family’s main income was from labor work which lasted only 2-3 months a year and they grew rice in a small farm at other times.

“About a month before Ketsana, I had to take him to the hospital as he couldn’t pee and no painkiller worked anymore. The doctor has removed the stone but a new one is forming. He’s made it clear that only filtered water is safe for him. I was really worried. Where would we get that much money from? We’d just spent it all on the surgery,” Heun said. “He’s the only person that has work.”

Then came the typhoon which swept through the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, killing more than 700 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Along with the damages to farmlands, basic infrastructure, and houses, the typhoon also worsened the common problem in rural Cambodia – lack of access to sanitation facilities and safe drinking water. In a country where chronic poverty is prevalent and almost 40% living below the poverty line, a small natural disaster was enough to wreak havoc to their livelihood.

Heun’s family had no land and relied heavily on casual labor for income. Oxfam assessments have shown that poor people spend between 35%-40% of their annual income on food and another 40% on medicines and other health care-related expenses.

Within one month after receiving a water filter and container from Oxfam, every family member experienced a sharp drop in diarrhea and sickness. “We’re less sick compared to a few months ago. My husband doesn’t feel pain much and can do daily work without a problem. The children like the taste better too,” Heun said.

Huen’s second daughter, eight-year-old Ming Piseth, agreed. “I don’t feel sick and weak all the time anymore. I also try to make sure that my siblings drink the water and wash their hands before meal,” the little girl added, referring to Oxfam’s handwashing campaign in the area.

Ming’s neighbor, Chean Rida, 18, said she was also happy with the filter as her 74-year-old grandmother Sem Rong has become healthier in the past month.

“Since we received this filter, we don’t have to boil the water anymore. We can drink more water without having to wait and it also tastes much better. Grandma used to have diarrhea very often and had to be put on a drip because of dehydration several times,” said Chean.

Sem Rong and her grandson

Posing in front of the water filter, Heun Chan Doeun, 31, shyly admitted that it was not really properly placed as it was in direct sunlight and kids sometimes dipped their hands into it. “Still it improves our health,” confirmed the mother of six.

Franciz Perez, Oxfam Country Director for Cambodia said not only did the water filters address the immediate problem of lack of clean water brought by Ketsana, the hygiene promotion also helped transform attitudes and practices of people in the long term.Ketsana Community Mobilizer Nhanh Saneth confirmed the change. “People are more receptive to handwashing practice. When they see that a small behavioral change makes a difference, they listen to you more,” he said. “If they fail to do it, it’s because they’re too tired and forgot but not from negligence anymore.”

A United Nations study showed that access to safe water in Cambodia was 24% in 1998 and hardly changed in 2010 due to growing population. The safe sanitation coverage was only 8.6 % and it has not gone beyond 11% despite effective sanitation programs at the community level in the last five years.

“Medical knowledge or access to clean water cannot get people to adopt more hygienic routine. But once they’re convinced, they will just start doing it and that will encourage others to follow suit just like in this case,” Perez said.

Uamdao Noikorn, Regional Media Coordinator, and Im Solina, Logistics Officer for Oxfam Cambodia

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