Water and sanitation

Children in Moung district, Battambang province, wash their hands with soap and water. Photo by WorldFish Cambodia, taken on 08 November 2018. Licensed under (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Recognized as a global crisis, the United Nations has included water and sanitation in Sustainable Development Goal 6, ensuring water and sanitation access for all. As one of the fast-growing economies in Asia, Cambodia has made tangible progress in various social development sectors, including poverty reduction, access to healthcare services, and education. However, the water and sanitation crisis remains challenging, especially for rural residents. The country has experienced notable progress toward safe water and sanitation over the past decades, but the work is far from complete.

Access to water and sanitation

In Cambodia, there are huge differences and disparities in water access and sanitation between urban and rural areas. In 2020, only 27 percent of households have access to safely managed drinking water, 43 percent to basic drinking water, 13 percent to limited water access, 5.6 percent live on unimproved water sources, and 9.2 percent depending on surface water.1 Thanks to the rapid pace of urbanization, most urban populations enjoy safely managed and basic water access. Only 8 percent and less than 1 percent live on unimproved and surface water sources.2


On the other hand, large proportions of rural populations are affected by the lack of access to water and sanitation.3 In 2020, around 18 percent of rural households can access safely managed water sources.4 The report shows that nearly 12 percent use surface water and 7.5 percent drink from unimproved water sources.5 These statistics have made Cambodia one of the region's lowest levels of accessing improved water sources.6 Joint Monitoring Program database found in 2020  that 19 percent of the Cambodians have defecated outside with no access to basic toilets.7 This show significant improvement from 2005, when the number of people utilizing open defecation was around 69 percent. Cambodia achieved zero open defecation in urban areas in 2020, though approximately 7 percent have limited sanitation access. Open defecation is still high in rural areas; as many as 25 percent still have no toilet access.8

Regarding hand washing facilities, around of rural Cambodians have no access to the facilities compared to urban households 12 percent. For students, the lack of handwashing facilities greatly threatens their health and hygiene. The report mentioned that 6 out of 10 primary schools in Cambodia do not have a basic handwashing station.9

Water and sanitation infrastructure

Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) is responsible for distributing clean water supplies in the capital city. By 2023, the city will have full coverage of sufficient and sustainable water usage, claimed PPWSA.10 As of 2021, PPWSA has connected approximately 431,000 water connections.11 Currently, four water treatment plants in Phnom Penh produce 650,000 cubic meters per day.12 By the end of 2022, another water treatment plant at the outskirt of Phnom Penh will be finished and can then produce 195,000 cubic meters of drinking water daily.13 Besides Phnom Penh, Water treatment plants are also operating in urban cities all over the country, such as Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampong Cham, Kampot, and Sihanoukville.14

Interactive map of Clean water supply coverage in Phnom Penh and the surrounding area

Since almost 78 percent of the total population resides in Cambodia's rural region, private water operators provide and supply clean water to about half of the population with water pipe service, said the World Bank.15 ​Several institutions and bodies are responsible for distributing water supply and sanitation in rural areas. Under the ministry of Rural Development, the Department of Rural Water Supply manages water supply in rural areas16 The Provincial Department of Rural Development and Commune Councils are responsible for implementing, financing, and planning rural infrastructure.

Private sectors play a vital role in providing clean and safe water supply to households in rural areas. They also provided other services such as materials and equipment, technical advice, facility management, maintenance and repair, and consultants. In addition, Cambodia Water Supply Association (CWA), a non-governmental organization that supports and promotes cooperation between private water operators in rural areas, currently has 95 members.17  75 are active members who operate 79 water utilities across 13 provinces in Cambodia.18 Other 500 private water operators (PWO) supply water to nearly 2 million citizens in the other 12 provinces19 Due to the nature of businesses as small-sized and family-owned, they often face financial and service expansion problems20

Sewage and wastewater treatment are still underdeveloped.21 Cambodia ranked the slowest in the region for progressing in wastewater management. In the most urbanized area of the country, Phnom Penh, there are 14 pumping stations with an outdated sewage system.22 The capital can experience flooding during the rainy season due to the ineffective sewage system and clogging. Besides wastewater treatment plants in the capital city, there are also wastewater treatment plants in some tourist cities, such as Siem Reap, Preah Sihanouk, and Battambang. However, they are insufficient to meet the citizens' needs.23

Water and sanitation policies and regulations

The Royal Government of Cambodia envisioned universal coverage of safe and clean water access by 2025. It means even the poorest rural populations will enjoy improved water sources. The water and sanitation crisis is still looming large in rural areas. Many policies and regulations are implemented to realize the goal, most of which are concentrated on rural development. The Royal Government of Cambodia is also committed to achieving United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), clean water and sanitation. Some water and sanitation-related policies and regulations are National Strategy for Rural Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene 2011-2025, National Strategy for Rural Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene 2014-2025, and National Action Plan Rural Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene 2019-2023.

National Strategy for RWSSH 2011-2025

Recognizing the complexity of the water and sanitation problems, the National Strategy was established in 2011 by the Technical Working Group for Rural Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene under the Ministry of Rural Development coordination. The strategic plan has set out different operational strategies at varying levels of actors, such as household and community, commune, district, province, and national levels. The strategy established three strategic objectives:

  1. Strategic objective 1: access to sustainable improved water supply service,
  2. Strategic objective 2: access to improved sanitation, and
  3. Strategic objective 3: hygiene behavior change.

National Action Plan for Rural Water Supply and Hygiene 2019-2023

The NAP RWSH 2019-2023 is the second phase of the action plan. It is built upon the results and lessons from the National Action Plan 2014-2018. The National Action Plan aims to guide governments and relevant stakeholders in developing and managing sustainable water and sanitation service delivery in line with other major laws and regulations. It highlighted five key strategic objectives :

  1. improve water supply services
  2. improve sanitation,
  3. behavioral hygiene change,
  4. institutional arrangement and
  5. financing.

NAP II has a sole outcome: “By 2030, rural populations have increase access to and use of equitable, sustainable and safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.” Seventeen activity clusters under four outputs are set out to realize the outcome.

Water and sanitation assistance

Cambodia’s water and sanitation support comes from financial assistance divided into loans and grants and technical assistance through institutional and capacity development. It is difficult to find the total water and sanitation loans and grants provided to Cambodia. However, the UNDP reported in 2020 that Cambodia had received 198 million USD dollars, a 100 million USD increase from 2010, as official development assistance.24 Development partners who actively support the sector are Asia Development Bank (ADB), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Agence Francaise de Development (AFD), Water.org, USAID, and many more. They worked collaboratively with local NGOs through different projects and programs that provided loans, grants, and technical support, mainly focused on development in provinces and rural areas.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) is one of the major development partners that provided 25 percent of all external assistance to support water and sanitation development in Cambodia.25 In 2019, ADB approved 49 million USD to support the government’s water and sanitation development.26 They have financed infrastructure development projects in various provinces such as Siem Reap, Battambang, Preah Sihanouk, and Kampong Cham.27 AFD has supported Cambodia’s water and sanitation sector since the 2000s accounting for 268 million pounds in loans and grants.28 One of the biggest water treatment plants, which will guarantee to provide Phnom Penh water supply by 65 percent when finished, was financed by a 184 million USD loan from AFD, 100 million USD from European Investment Bank, 15 million grants from European Union and 80 million investment from PPWSA.29

Through JICA, the Japanese government has continued supporting water supply infrastructure development in urban and rural areas. The association has provided 27 million USD grants for the wastewater treatment plan.30 JICA also promises to offer technical support in maintaining the treatment plants. In 2021, the Cambodian government received 58 million USD from JICA for the Siem Reap Water Supply Expansion Project.31 Other provinces under the support of JICA are Pursat and Svay Reing. 32

Initiated in 2017, a 3 million USD Wash-FIN program of USAID is a three-year program that provides technical support to PWOs to enhance their water and sanitation access and services.33 Water.org implemented the WaterCredit program in 2015, which aims to provide small loans to households that need access to water and sanitation.34 Water.org has also provided technical assistance to 11 financial institution partners that work on the WaterCredit program.35 Since its implementation in 2015, the program has reached 1.9 million citizens and distributed 435,000 USD in water and sanitation development loans.36

Challenges of water and sanitation 

Providing access to clean water and sanitation is a global challenge. For Cambodia, the progress toward the 2025 universal improved water access and the 2030 sanitation goal look far from reality. While the urban enjoy sufficient clean water access and sanitation, the challenges remain in rural areas.

Universal improved water coverage means everyone across the country can access clean and safe water sources. However, the disparities between rural and urban populations regarding water and sanitation access are high.37 It can be seen through statistics. The reason is mainly due to limited coverages and services, such as the lack of water pipelines and water treatment plants in provinces, especially in remote areas.38 Most people use open water sources such as rainwater, rivers, lake, and lagoons. It was linked to the lack of toilets and the practice of open defecation near those water sources, exposing them to diseases and illnesses.

Another issue that constrains water and sanitation access is the lack of institutional capacity and human resources. One of the more significant problems is related to financial management. As mentioned in the WHO report, a financial report system is absent among the associated departments.39 There is no expenditure on water and sanitation reports since the country lacks sector-wide approaches to collecting financial information.40 Lack of funding is also a problem as development in the water and sanitation sector requires enormous financing to meet the 2030 national goal.

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