Engineers Without Borders Australia has pioneered access to sanitation for communities living in challenging environments, and is fostering cross-sector collaboration to help rural Cambodians access appropriate, affordable sanitation solutions.
Living in Australia, it’s easy to forget many people don’t have access to basic services. Only 30 percent of rural Cambodians, for example, have access to toilets. 
Over a quarter of Cambodia’s population, nearly four million people, have even less access to toilets as they live in challenging environments such as floating communities or communities that are affected by flooding or high ground water. 
“People who live in challenging environments face a range of barriers to accessing sanitation,” explains Chartered Mechanical Engineer Andrew Koolhof, Project Facilitator for EWB’s Sanitation in Challenging Environments (SCE) Project in Cambodia.
The barriers include a lack of technically feasible options and the high cost of constructing and building toilets in challenging environments compared to a ‘normal’ environment. In addition, many people live in isolated areas which are hard to access and have limited cash flow.
All these factors point to a real need to focus on developing innovative, affordable sanitation solutions for communities that live in challenging environments.
“The SCE Project grew organically when a number of our partner organisations in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector identified the need to work together to develop technical solutions that are appropriate, acceptable to the community and that will actually work for challenging environments,” explains Heidi Michael, EWB International Program Coordinator.
“It also provides an opportunity for EWB to empower vulnerable communities to deal with the impacts of climate change and provide tangible support for the Sustainable Development Goals which emphasise the need for people to come together to address the root causes of poverty and disadvantage,” says Heidi.
The SCE project is funded by the Australian Government’s Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).
Collaboration and knowledge sharing are fostered through a range of initiatives including forum facilitation, technical advice, advocacy, resource development and building capacity of local partners.
“We believe a really effective way to help grow the SCE sector in Cambodia is to work with affected communities to understand their needs and involve them in trialling appropriate, affordable technologies. We then share the successes amongst the wider WASH sector so other organisations can tap into those solutions,” explains Andrew.
One of the program’s major initiatives is the SCE Forum, held quarterly, which brings together WASH organisations who work with communities in challenging environments in Cambodia through a series of workshops and presentations to share knowledge, discuss successes and failures and explore opportunities to work together.
The latest forum, held in partnership with Wetlands Work, took place at the beginning of September 2016 and involved a field trip to visit floating communities living on the Tonle Sap Lake. It was attended by a wide range of organisations including: United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), World Vision International (WVI), Plan International, International Development Enterprises (iDE), Rain Water Cambodia (RWC), Habitat for Humanity (HFH), SNV (Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers (SNV) a Dutch NGO, Church World Services (CWS), Wetlands Work! (WW!), Johaniiter International, Khmer Community Development (KCD) and Community Empowerment and Development Team (CEDT).
In parallel with the SCE Forum, Andrew is also working on technical initiatives including how to develop the design of the EZ Latrine, a standard design developed by International Development Enterprises (iDE) that is being widely installed across Cambodia, so it can be used in challenging environments.
“The EZ Latrine is cost effective, widely accessible and has an established supply chain. We are aiming to modify the design to make it suitable, but still affordable for communities living in challenging environments where a standard latrine is not appropriate,” says Andrew.
Collaboration and engagement throughout the WASH sector is fundamental to the SCE Project’s success. Andrew believes EWB’s decision to employ local Khmer Environmental Engineer, Piseth Kim, to assist the SCE project for a number of years will help foster connections with other organisations and provide a pivotal cultural insight.
“My hope is to see SCE technologies become mainstream and implemented the same as sanitation in normal environments in Cambodia. With more co-operation, we can focus on finding appropriate, innovative designs that can be used as models, not only for Cambodia but widely for the region and the globe,”says Piseth.
Other positive opportunities for the SCE project include the focus by the Cambodian Government on achieving 100% sanitation coverage across Cambodia by 2025 and the imminent trial of a number of education and technical resources the project has developed with major implementing partners including Wetlands Work! (WW!), Church World Services (CWS), iDE, Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) and the Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Ministry Sub-Group (RuSH).
After operating successfully for over two years, Heidi says EWB’s SCE Project is making a difference to the lives of people living in challenging environments in Cambodia and EWB is now looking to use the learnings to benefit other communities.
“The SCE project is a good example of advocacy and action as it has raised the issue to national prominence. By bringing the key players together, we’ve raised the profile of sanitation in challenging environments to the point where it has now been placed on the Cambodian Government’s National Action Plan, is recognised as one of the key components for the Cambodian Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Improvement Program (CR-SHIP) and is championed by WatSan, a local forum for the Cambodian WASH sector, as a key issue for addressing sanitation in Cambodia,” says Heidi.
“The success of the SCE project has enabled us to leverage the funding we receive from ANCP to obtain other grants from CR-SHIP, the Global Sanitation Fund and iDE to implement SCE projects in several Cambodian provinces. It has also inspired us to investigate working with Live & Learn Environmental Education and EWB New Zealand to apply the learnings in Vanuatu,” explains Heidi.
Read more about EWB’s Sanitation in Challenging Environment Project. This program is supported by ANCP and Australia Aid.
Written by Matilda Bowra