Having survived the horrific killing fields of his beloved Cambodia, 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ek Sonn Chan believed his life had a purpose. Little did he know that it was to give life to his countrymen by providing them access to something we take for granted: clean, potable water.
It would have been easy for Ek Sonn Chan to go with the flow of corruption that continued to erode the government-run water system in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. After all, the utility appeared to be a hopeless case when he took charge in 1993. Abandoned by the Khmer Rouge that made the capital a no-man’s-land at the start of the war in 1975, it lay a legacy of leaking and rusty pipes, some installed 100 years earlier while the newest were 40 years old.
Foreign investors tended to shun appeals for aid, skeptical as they were of the ability and integrity of leadership in one of the world’s poorest countries. As for Cambodia’s citizens who survived the killing fields and flocked back to the capital after the war, they had sunk into accepting that rationed water, even 10 years later, was already a blessing.
When Ek was appointed to head the Phnom Penh Water System Authority in 1993, it was then being run by a bureaucracy used to nepotism and political ties, practically boring holes in the pipelines. Its main preoccupation was personal profit. Illegal water connections were being sold for about $1,000 each, causing some 70% of water to be lost revenue. There were no efficient monitoring and billing systems to speak of. Rich and highly-placed water users snubbed demands on them to pay up, while poorer ones made an excuse of their social superiors to shirk theirs.
Having survived the killing fields where he lost every family member he knew, Ek believed he was alive for a purpose. He returned home armed with little more than an electrical engineering background and some work experience in France before the war. His emotional appeal to help his people move on from its violent history, to rescue them from their “suffering in time of peace because of our water,” finally convinced foreign investors to look Cambodia’s way. Loans from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the Japanese and French governments amounting to $110 million flowed in. This allowed Ek not only to jump-start the rehabilitation of a moribund utility but also to rectify its culture of corruption.
Cambodia has not been put to shame. Ek’s word of honor upheld by a dedicated leadership has made the PPWSA what it is today: a commercially viable entity that is paying back its loans and on its own can finance the expansion of the capital’s water system to poorer areas. A far cry from its decrepit state some 10 years earlier when the utility could not even pay its electric bills, with operating costs exceeding income by a billion in local currency. Sometimes it could not even buy the chemicals needed for proper water treatment.
To date, more than 750 kilometers of new pipes have been added from an original 280 kilometers. Two pumping and treatment plants have been repaired, and a third added, each of which can supply a million people with running water 24 hours each day. In 2004, the ADB, which had lent $10 million to the PPWSA for a 16-kilometer transmission line, awarded the utility its Water Prize.
For 85% of the people of Phnom Penh, the PPWSA’s rehabilitation means a 24-hour water service. Back in 1993, only about 20% of the capital were lucky to have running water at appointed hours each day. Ek is optimistic that by 2015, the utility would exceed UN expectations and be able to provide water to 95% of the projected population.
Clean water, through the proper treatment and filtration of storm water and seepage that come with the seasonal monsoon rains, also meant a dramatic decrease in the incidence of diarrhea that had been a major cause of death in children below five years old. It was most acute in suburban and rural areas farther from the main water lines.
Among his biggest challenges, he says, was dealing directly with water users. Water pilferage was rampant and the only way to curb it was to demand payment from users or else threaten cuts in their supply. At the same time, accurate water meters started to be installed on every connection. In half a year, the bill collection ratio was raised to 99 percent. The ADB noted that it was the highest known for a water utility across the region. Non-revenue water was, on the other hand, reduced to 16%, the lowest ever in Southeast Asia where such losses averaged 25 percent.
Ek himself would conduct door-to-door campaigns in urban and rural areas of the capital, meeting rich and poor alike, to convince them of the need for increases in their water bill. Raising tariffs was the only way to pay back the huge foreign loans. He explained that the costs to the consumers would turn out less than what they would pay to illegal water vendors. Besides that, they would be spared the hassle of queuing up for water and be getting it straight from the tap.
The efficiency of Ek’s leadership was such that what was supposed to be a three-step increase in water tariffs was reduced to two, since revenue was already being fully recovered from better collection.
Amid a trend in Southeast Asia toward privatizing government-run utilities, Ek proudly declares that none of the processes in running the capital’s water system are contracted out. Water treatment, pipe-laying, house connections, meter-reading, billing and collection are all performed by the PPWSA. “It’s a matter of process, leadership and policy,” Ek says. “No need for private sector participation.” The utility can now even afford to decline foreign investment offers, allowing the quality of the PPWSA’s service to be independent of profit-oriented goals, Ek says.
The irony of Phnom Penh’s lying at the confluence of three rivers and yet being unable to provide its citizens with potable water has been abridged. Ek Sonn Chan has restored not only the capital’s water system to an efficient and hygienic state for a growing population but also restored the Cambodian citizens’ trust in government service.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award this year honors Ek Sonn Chan with the award for Government Service for “his exemplary rehabilitation of a ruined public utility, bringing safe drinking water to a million people in Cambodia’s capital city.”