India and Cambodia: Similar challenges around sanitation

Apr 01, 2015


The 50 kilometer drive from Phnom Penh to Ponhea Leu, Kandal province took a good two hours, reminding me of similar roads in India. In Cambodia, on an assignment for Amplify Markets to support businesses providing WASH solutions to low income consumers, it's difficult not to draw comparisons with the situation back home.

Both countries face the same challenges in sanitation where availability of affordable toilets is limited. Organizations like IDE have been supporting small toilet businesses to address this gap.These providers are still learning basic business skills and lack access to capital. On the demand side, in both countries, there is an absence of formal savings by low-income families. This leaves families without the cash flow to purchase big ticket item like a toilet and adoption remains constrained. Both countries leverage microfinance loans to address this, but funds for such loans remain limited. Low-income families in both India and Cambodia aspire to have a ‘nice' toilet with septic tanks. This limits demand for viable and affordable technologies like leech pits, while people wait to be able to afford a nice toilet.

A relief for Cambodia, though, is its lower density of population compared to India, where dense populations face space constraints for toilet construction. During my short stay, what was evident was the dependence on external stakeholders. Cambodia has a high number of international NGOs dependent on foreign aid and expats. This has translated into a lack of ownership of their programs by local communities, which is likely to pose a problem for transition from aid to self-reliance.  Because of this, I feel it is imperative to use grant funds to build capacity of solution providers (like sanitation businesses) and knowledge of consumers rather than just give away WASH products.

Interestingly, in my interactions I could not help wondering what was helping things along in Cambodia. Being a matriarchal society it was far easier in Cambodia to approach women, who in any society are more sensitive to issues concerning the family's health. This definitely has a spin off for sanitation and makes it much easier to communicate the benefits of a toilet to the family. Once women were convinced they needed toilets, they took the decision to buy as opposed to India where male members of the family are the purchase decision-makers for expensive items like toilets. Hence, convincing a family in India to adopt a toilet means convincing two or more people and makes the exercise more difficult.  

Cambodia, like India, is one of the countries in the world where the vast majority of deaths from diarrhea occur. Low-income families in both the countries are at risk as a result of open defecation and lack of access to safe water or to lifesaving treatment. Coming back to bad roads: WASH products - toilets, water filters and others will obviously cost more in Cambodia too, because of the high logistics costs due to bad roads.

At this point awareness is simply not enough. Consistent supply of good quality and affordable toilets will help both countries inch towards their MDGs. 


-- Tanya Mahajan has been working in the WASH sector for the past five years. She is the co-founder of Zariya, a development consulting firm that leverages businesses as a way to increase access to safe water and appropriate sanitation. 

Photo credits: Tanya Mahajan/PATH.