Vuthy (not his real name) was at work in the main public hospital in Cambodia’s coastal province of Preah Sihanouk in March when he found out that their wells had gone dry.
There were about 180 patients being cared for that day, says Vuthy, a Health Ministry official. Some complained that they didn’t have water—sourced from wells on the hospital grounds—to drink, wash with or use the toilet.
“So, can you imagine, without water for some time, how bad our hospital smelled on those days?” Vuthy tells New Naratif. He’d requested anonymity to avoid professional repercussions.
The Chamkar Chek Referral Hospital in Sihanoukville was among many institutions, businesses and households across more than half of Cambodia’s provinces to experience water shortages during this year’s prolonged dry season, from mid-November to mid-May.
The delayed rainy season, paired with rapid construction and population growth, have placed new hardships on locals
In Sihanoukville, the delayed rainy season, paired with rapid construction and population growth, have placed new hardships on locals, affecting their access to water at home and work, according to officials and locals.
As mostly Chinese investors pour money into new real estate, hotels and casinos in the coastal city, Chamkar Chek hospital was forced, for the first time, to have water trucked in while they dug new wells to accommodate patients, Vuthy says. Other locals bought water from private vendors or paid to have wells dug deeper—sometimes in vain.
The UN and ASEAN are predicting more frequent and intense droughts in many parts of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia. If resilience measures aren’t taken, Sihanoukville will struggle to sustain both its ongoing development and its water supply.
Rapid urban development
Local authorities and residents blame booming development for consuming a lot of water and making climate change-induced drought conditions even tougher on local people.
Sihanoukville has been undergoing rapid changes in recent years, following an influx of Chinese businesses and tourists to the seaside city. Locals and officials say increased construction—especially of casinos—and population growth has put pressure on public infrastructure, including roads, water and waste management, raised land prices, and increased crime rates.
Public water consumption in Sihanoukville has more than doubled from 2014 to 2018, with more than 10 million m3 of water consumed last year, according to figures from the provincial water authority. Phorn Ratanak, provincial water authority chief, says the provincial capital now needs 40,000 m3 per day.
“The water supply is not enough because the demand is very high due to the rapid growth of the construction in Preah Sihanouk province from Chinese investors,” Ratanak says.
Since 2008, the public water authority has purchased water from a private company, its representative says. But since the start of 2019, the authority has completely relied on the firm to meet the province’s rising demand—some 52,000 m3 of water daily, up from 18,000 m3 in 2016, according to Ratanak.
At 1,200 riel per m3 (about US$0.30), the provincial authority is spending some US$15,600 a day on water. It then sells water to the public at a higher rate for any consumption above 3m3 per day.
Before May 2018, Anco was only allowed to install its water distribution network in the province’s suburbs for restaurants, hotels, casinos, other businesses and special economic zones, says Anco representative Nam Keateng.
But since then, the water authority has counted on Anco to supply households as well. The authority had stopped its water treatment operation because the former freshwater source, Praek Tup lake, had become increasingly untreatable due to it being filled with sand in preparation for future development, Keateng says.
Rattanak says treatment of lake water stopped due to development plans and because the government saw another clean water source, Kbal Chhay, as an adequate water reservoir.
Keateng says there’s enough water to meet the province’s rising demand. Anco started using a second water reservoir late last year, increasing its daily water supply from 40,000m3 to 100,000m3, he says.
Still, the company representative adds, issues remain with the distribution channel that connects Anco’s water reservoirs to customers.
“Too much construction”
Keo Vy, spokesperson for the National Committee for Disaster Management, says that a water shortage in Sihanoukville occurred in April 2018, towards the end of the dry season. But the water shortage began two months earlier this year.
“Because of too much construction, water supply for daily consumption isn’t enough,” he tells New Naratif.
From 2005 to 2016, fewer than 50 new construction projects were approved for buildings from five to 35 storeys, the provincial government says. In 2017, 11 new buildings, from eight to 42 floors, were approved. Then things kicked off in 2018: 75 new buildings, all at least five storeys high, were approved. The pace has only increased in the first three months of 2019, with 40 new construction projects already approved.
The provincial government says Preah Sihanouk’s total population has risen just under 5% from 2016 to 2018, reaching about 215,000 people in 2018.
The number of Chinese tourists visiting Cambodia has also risen annually. In 2017, China bypassed Vietnam as highest annual source of tourists, with 1.2 million Chinese visiting that year. In 2018, about 2 million Chinese tourists entered Cambodia. The number of Chinese visiting for business has also risen by 75%, from about 91,000 in 2015 to nearly 160,000 in 2017, according to Tourism Ministry figures.
Sihanoukville’s expanding hospitality industry, including hotels, restaurants, casinos and other entertainment venues, caters heavily to Chinese tourists, with some Chinese-owned establishments’ signage controversially in Chinese and misspelled Khmer. The number of government-issued casino licenses—less than 100 at the end of 2017—rose to 163 as of April 2019, with more than half of the licenses for gambling venues in Preah Sihanouk province, according to official figures reported by the Khmer Times.
“We have granted a lot of licences, but there are actually only 51 casinos in operation. The rest are now being built, while some have halted operations,” Ros Phearun, a Finance Ministry official, told the Times.
“The rise in the number of casinos reflects the increase in tourists, particularly Chinese,” he added.
But the casinos are short on water, too
At Chamkar Chek hospital, Vuthy says the hospital wells used to produce between 60–80m3 of water per day, above the 40m3 the hospital staff and patients typically consume each day.
But now, with more wells being dug in the area—including by Chinese companies funding major construction projects—the water supply is decreasing, according to the hospital official. In fact, a nearby hotel has even dug a very deep well right behind the hospital, apparently affecting their water supply.
Casinos are also struggling with shortages. Another Sihanoukville hotel and casino that opened in late 2018 had a problem securing water for its guests, says Long Chanrak Ya, head of administration for New Golden Wealth Casino.
The 180-room venue had installed two water pumps in order to pump water into three 10,000m3 reservoirs, Chanrak Ya says. But the pumps had proved ineffective by January, and the casino ended up spending about US$90 every day or two to have water delivered by truck.
“It affects everyone, not just local residents, because when there is no water coming from the pipes, everyone, including us hotels and casinos, also has no water coming from the pipes,” Chanrak Ya says.
In March, the casino stopped buying trucked-in water—once its pipes were connected to Anco Water Supply, in addition to its existing connection to the provincial water authority.
“The more they come, the harder it is to pump water”
Kim Sea, chief of a Sihanoukville commune, tells New Naratif that despite his commune being connected to the city’s public water infrastructure, the water authority has failed to meet local demand.
In an average month during this past dry season, up to 500 families were left short of water for about 25 days and had to buy water from private vendors, Sea says.
He adds that he’d asked provincial authorities why water couldn’t be pumped to his area—the new high-rise hotels along the coast, after all, had such infrastructure.
“Before we have never had problems with the water, before the Chinese came,” Sea says, adding that issues started in the last two years as the local real estate sector began to boom. “The more they come, the harder it is to pump water.”
In an average month during this past dry season, up to 500 families were left short of water for about 25 days and had to buy water from private vendors
Yet some say that the inability of the public authorities to provide water doesn’t seem to be reflected in the amounts they’re expected to pay. Some of Sea’s constituents have been left wondering why their public water bills have stayed consistent, even though they’ve had to buy private water when it slows to a trickle from their pipes.
“Each month we have to spend about US$10 to US$12.50 extra to buy water in addition to the monthly bill [of about US$25] from the water authority,” says 67-year-old Ouk Chem, who has lived in the commune since 1981 and gained a water authority connection to his home in 2010.
“I don’t know why the price remains the same even though we don’t have enough water,” Chem says. Ratanak, the provincial water authority chief, says he’s unaware of any issues like Chem described, but that residents should notify the authority if they happen.
Chem says that, on some days, it can take 30 minutes to fill up a small bucket. About 50 families lacked water in his village during the shortage.
“In our village, we cannot be extravagant with our water use,” Chem adds. “Sometimes we have to wash our clothes not often, just twice a month.”
The business of drought
In January, Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to citizens and officials to prepare for the effects of El Niño, calling for the preservation of water in reservoirs, natural ponds and lakes, and advising people to use less water for daily consumption, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
The premier, who has led Cambodia for 34 years, urged officials again in March to prepare for the dry season and drought by digging wells.
“In case we have enough water this year but somehow lack water next year, the wells would come in handy. So dig as many wells as possible at any places that lack water,” he added.
By March in Sihanoukville, Chamkar Chek hospital had already reported a “severe clean water shortage.” Vuthy, the hospital official, says three new wells were built at Chamkar Chek this year and paid for by donations from the local commune chief and another private individual.
The businesses of digging wells and selling water has become quite profitable. The cost of digging a well rose from about US$1,000 earlier this year to about US$2,500, and it became hard to find someone to do the work because of the demand for new wells, Vuthy says.
“Because we are a public health service, we were prioritised, but otherwise [well diggers] were very busy with their clients,” he added.
“The [well] business is getting stronger and stronger since last year because the shortage of water is increasing more and more and it is getting hotter and hotter”
Meng Mean, owner of a Phnom Penh-based well company, says most of his customers are Chinese companies and other real estate companies that rent to Chinese people in Sihanoukville.
The average price for a well is about US$2,000, depending on its location and depth, Mean says. “The deeper you dig, the more expensive the price,” he explains. While wells are usually 40–50m deep, wells in Sihanoukville now tend to go down about 70–80m—even as deep as 100m.
Mean claims that the rising costs have to do with the increase in the cost of materials, not rising demand, but he also acknowledges that the drought has led to more business for people like him. “The [well] business is getting stronger and stronger since last year because the shortage of water is increasing more and more and it is getting hotter and hotter,” he says.
Sim Sarak, a 60-year-old former rice farmer from Kompong Speu province, drove about three hours to Sihanoukville in February to sell water that he’d bought from local households who were still managing to pump from their wells. Most of his deliveries are to recently built casinos and hotels catering to Chinese tourists as well as local people who need the water for household consumption, he says. By transporting and selling water, Sarak says he could earn about US$1,000 to US$2,000 per month, “much better than when I am at home farming.” As a farmer, he was earning about US$250 per month.
“More dry years ahead”
Across Southeast Asia, “there will be many more dry years ahead, and the area affected by drought is likely to shift and expand,” says a report released in April by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
While the drought area has historically been concentrated over parts of Vietnam and Indonesia, it’s now expected to expand. “In the near future, even with less severe El Niños, the [concentrated] drought area will have extended to Cambodia,” the report says.
In 2015 to 2016, about 2.5 million people in Cambodia were impacted by drought, water shortages, land degradation, loss of livestock and reduced agricultural productivity in relation to the El Niño event, according to the UNESCAP report. “In 2015, the drought affected almost 250,000 hectares of cropland, and destroyed over 40,000 hectares of rice,” the report says.
“There will be many more dry years ahead, and the area affected by drought is likely to shift and expand”
While the reasons behind drought—El Niño weather cycles, less rainfall, higher temperatures and climate change resulting in drier dry seasons—are “largely beyond governments’ control, better management requires a combination of institutional means for fairer water sharing, incentives for more careful use of water by private actors, and allocation of water to the most appropriate uses,” according Philip Hirsch, a scholar of natural resource management and the politics of environment in Southeast Asia.
Drinking and domestic water should be prioritised, followed by agricultural and industrial uses, then finally luxury uses, Hirsch writes in an email to New Naratif. “Prioritising social use of water above appropriation of water by more powerful economic actors is one principle,” with measures needing to be tailored to each water source and delivery system, he says.
Managing Cambodia’s water
The Mekong River Commission Secretariat, the operational arm of the intergovernmental organisation meant to manage the water resources and development of the Mekong River, says regional cooperation between MRC member countries—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam—on reservoir operation would help alleviate the impact of drought.
Water infrastructure, such as ponds, reservoirs and dams, can help store the country’s abundance of water from the wet season and mitigate drought during the dry season, the MRC says.
But infrastructure needs “careful planning that takes into account social and environmental consequences [including impacts on water quality and fisheries] to avoid development at the expense of the environment,” the MRC adds.
The body is preparing a drought management strategy for the four lower Mekong basin countries and suggesting measures to strengthen capacity, including a reliable drought monitoring system and seasonal outlook forecast, water resources planning and drought management preparedness that need to be completed after rainy seasons, and more information and data sharing among the member countries and China in order to analyse cross-border impacts.
Additionally, MRC says that governments should place more emphasis on planning their water resources after the end of each rainy season.
Prak Sovann, provincial rural development director, says the number of wells have risen significantly in Sihanoukville, to nearly one well per house. But while digging new wells may provide some with water, the wells still rely on finite ground water.
Heng Sothonrith, water resources and meteorology director in Sihanoukville, says his department is considering building reservoir ponds where needed to prepare for future droughts.
The extended dry seasons, coupled with wells dug by hotels and casinos, have sucked up groundwater resources, Sothonrith says.
“We use water and sooner or later it will run out,” he says.
NOTE: *Vuthy is a pseudonym for a Health Ministry official working at Chamkar Chek Referral Hospital in Preah Sihanouk province who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional repercussions.
Additional reporting by Matt Surrusco
Kong Meta is a freelance journalist in Cambodia with bylines at Der Spiegel, The Guardian and BBC. She was a reporter at the Phnom Penh Post from 2016 to 2019 during which time her stories won Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) awards for excellence in reporting on human rights, gender and culture.
Chan Muyhong is a freelance reporter in Phnom Penh. She is a former business reporter for the Phnom Penh Post and NNA Asia.