Poverty and the systemic issue of WASH inequality

By Lien Pham


Mr Haem Rum lives in Prey Mnas village, Prey Chhor Commune, Kampong Trabeak district, Prey Veng Province. He is an elderly, poor man with hearing loss. He was born and have lived in this village all his life. He now lives on his own.


Through WOBA, and with the financial support of his children, he built a hygienic latrine and now uses it. He also has acquired some soaps for personal hygiene. He built a pumped well which he pumps water, boil it and drink. He decided to build the latrine because he felt that having a latrine on this own property would make it easy for him to go to the toilet at all times of the day. He no longer has to travel far to defecate. He also feels his health has improved thanks to his latrine use and washing his hands with soap after defecation.


Mr Rum spoke about the new knowledge he has gained after the village facilitator delivered the WASH message (one of WOBA’s mobilisation activities). From this visit, he learns that surface and underground water has a high chance of being polluted. He also learns that people use many chemical inputs to put into rice farms and some plantations around his home. So, he always boils water taken from these sources before drinking.


Like Mr Rum many households in rural villages do not have money to buy latrines and thus prioritise saving money for basic living expenses, and for difficult times including when disasters strike. During interviews with households in the midterm review of WOBA, and conversations during the field visits, they shared with us that the cost of latrines is too high and requires many years of saving. For many, their economic vulnerabilities have worsened due to climate change and COVID-19.


Affordability is the significant barrier for poor and disadvantaged households, and financial support is the enabling factor for providing equitable access to hygienic latrine. But there is a wide range of economic, social and cultural factors that influence how people perceive the importance of sanitation, which impact their decision to build hygienic latrine. WOBA’s selection of households eligible for subsidy schemes is based on the government list of households with ID poor status, which often do not capture all the people with needs and demand for WASH.


Mr Rum’s story about improved WASH access and use is an example of intended outcome of WOBA to increase WASH access to marginalised households. But like all complex and entrenched challenges, there is no solution that works in isolation. Rather than an output aid-based approach, we could embed human-centred approach that focuses on citizens’ adaption and learning, involving the communities in diagnosing what is working and how these results might play out, and under what conditions.


Mr Rum has since passed away. The featured image for this post is his house.

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