HIGHLIGHTS

  • In 1993, EK was put in charge of rehabilitating Phnom Penh’s city water system. He chose the best and brightest in the workforce for a major overhaul. They located and repaired the system’s myriad leaks, installed thousands of water meters, and closed hundreds of illegal connections.
  • He installed a computerized billing program, and tapped the support of international lenders. In 1997, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) became an autonomous public enterprise under General Director Ek Sonn Chan.
  • With pricing policies favoring light users as well as subsidized connection fees and installment payment plans, he made cheap water available to the city’s poorest neighborhoods. At the same time, EK professionalized the Authority’s workforce, building its technical capacity and instilling in its employees a work ethic of discipline, competence, and teamwork.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes his exemplary rehabilitation of a ruined public utility, bringing safe drinking water to a million people in Cambodia’s capital city.

 CITATION

Asia’s urban multitudes are thirsty and ever-growing. Providing them with safe drinking water is a gargantuan task everywhere. But consider Phnom Penh. The Cambodian capital and former French colonial center had only a modest water distribution system to begin with. Bombing, civil war, and social havoc in the early 1970s brought waves of refugees to the city. Then, abruptly in 1975, the triumphant Khmer Rouge banished every person from Phnom Penh and abandoned its already sagging infrastructure to atrophy. When the genocidal regime was driven from power in 1979, the city swelled again, yet little was done to revive its broken-down water system. Then, in 1993, Ek Sonn Chan was put in charge.

As a young engineering graduate, Ek Sonn Chan lost his entire family to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. He managed to survive as a farmer. In 1979, he found work at the Phnom Penh municipal abattoir and subsequently rose to be the city’s director of commerce. The water system he inherited in 1993 was barely a system at all. Over the years, its ancient French-laid pipes had been augmented haphazardly into an indecipherable maze of connections. No blueprints had survived the Khmer Rouge, nor had the engineers who understood them. The entire labyrinth was riddled with holes and so porous that disease-laden sewage easily seeped in. Ek discovered that 70 percent of the city’s water was lost to leaks or theft. Among the thieves were his own employees as well as military men and other VIPs who profited by selling water to better-off neighborhoods. Poor people paid black marketeers dearly for what was left. The city’s water agency collected fees from only half its users. Not surprisingly, it was losing money.

Ek combed his bloated workforce for the best and brightest and set them to work–locating and repairing the system’s myriad leaks, installing thousands of water meters, and closing hundreds of illegal connections. He installed a computerized billing program, financed by France, and persuaded other international lenders that his agency was a good risk. In 1997, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) became an autonomous public enterprise. With major loans from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the government of Japan, General Director Ek Sonn Chan embarked upon a major overhaul.

He laid 1,500 kilometers of new pipelines and expanded the Authority’s water output by 600 percent. He confronted VIP nonpayers and cut off their water when persuasion failed, achieving a collection rate of 99 percent by 2003. He raised prices, resulting in strong revenues and an enviable reputation for paying the Authority’s debts ahead of schedule. With pricing policies favoring light users as well as subsidized connection fees and installment payment plans, he made cheap water available to the city’s poorest neighborhoods. New and refurbished water-treatment plants ensured that this water met WHO water-safety standards. At the same time, Ek professionalized the Authority’s workforce, building its technical capacity and instilling in its employees a work ethic of discipline, competence, and teamwork.

Today, Ek’s clean water reaches virtually all of Phnom Penh’s inner city and he is busy spreading it to the outer reaches of the metropolis. In 2004, the World Bank cited PPWSA for its “dramatic improvement in organization, profitability and organizational performance.”

Now fifty-six, Ek Sonn Chan attributes his drive to “work for the country” to the traumas of Cambodia’s recent past. Patriotism also explains his preference for public utilities over private-sector ones. “The profit made by us,” he says, referring to the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, “will be profit for our country.”

In electing Ek Sonn Chan to receive the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his exemplary rehabilitation of a ruined public utility, bringing safe drinking water to a million people in Cambodia’s capital city.

 RESPONSE

The Honorable Chief Justice, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and dear friends.

Thirteen years ago, I was appointed by my superior to be the head of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority–an organization synonymous to corruption, inefficiency and a big bully from the public point of view. No government officer wanted to accept this job; but it challenged me.

Today, I come here to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for having rehabilitated a ruined public utility, bringing safe drinking water to a million people in Cambodia’s city. This is doubtless the most profound honor I have received. Words cannot express my deep appreciation and gratitude to the Foundation and its officers and trustees for this award.

I feel humbled by this recognition because I know that I did not do it alone. There are so many other unsung organizations and people who have made their respective contributions to help me achieve my mission at this level.

Cambodia was devastated by 20 years’ civil war. Many homes were damaged and many lives were lost. Most infrastructure facilities were destroyed. The country under civil war was ruled by a dictatorship. This ravaged our economy and shattered the morale of our people. Surviving from the killing fields, favored with the support of well-meaning individuals and organizations, my colleagues and I have tried to do something for the benefit of our people; and we are able to do it to some extent.

In receiving this 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service, I would like to pay my humble tribute to this great leader, to thank those who have taken part in the selection process for bestowing this honor upon me, and to share it with all the dedicated and selfless men and women of PPWSA, who have contributed so much in bringing PPWSA to where it is today.

Our mission is by no means complete; we continue to do our best, as this award has propelled me to consolidate and expand my work.

Thank you all.

 BIOGRAPHY

In 1995, Ek Sonn Chan was trying to convince the World Bank to fund Phnom Penh’s waterworks system. As Municipal Water Supply director for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, the electrical engineer and civil servant faced the Herculean task of turning a decrepit system that served only a fourth of the city’s residents for ten hours a day into a modern operation for all of Phnom Penh’s two million people. The bank effectively turned him down, saying the time was not right because the security situation was so bad. Mike Gan, a World Bank veteran of thirty years, also expressed doubts about the capability of a municipal body to reform.

Ek was persistent. He showed Gan and the other bank representatives around the city, showing them what the Municipal Water Supply had already done. “We kept telling them we could do it,” he recalls. Apparently impressed by Ek’s energy, the World Bank relented and decided to help, with the proviso that the percentage of water use that could not be accounted for should not be more than 35 percent by 2002. The chain-smoking Gan told Ek: “If you succeed, I’ll stop smoking.” The two men met again in 2002, when Ek and his team had far exceeded the bank’s condition, keeping the proportion of unaccounted water to just 20 percent. Gan told the Cambodian that he would stop smoking the next time they met. Says Ek, laughing: “I never saw him again after that.”

It’s a small victory for a broken country that just three decades ago saw more than a million of its citizens perish because of the murderous Khmer Rouge, the extremist movement that sought to rebuild Cambodia into a communist country. Members of Ek’s family were among the dead. A poor farmer’s son who beat the odds to complete his university studies, he spent the three years of Khmer Rouge hell laboring in a work camp as a blacksmith. When the Khmer Rouge was toppled by Vietnam, he worked as a butcher in a government abattoir, rising up the ranks to become director of the Municipal Department of Commerce and director general of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)