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Battle to improve sanitation in Cambodia

Along the border between Thailand and Cambodia, troops have been clashing for four days over a disputed area between the two countries.

An international court ruling gave jurisdiction over the 11th century Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia. However, ownership of land around the temple was never agreed, leading to a number of skirmishes between troops over the past decades. According to the Cambodian government, 5 of its people have been killed in latest fighting, with 45 injured. At least 2 Thai have died. The Cambodian President has called for a buffer zone to be created by the United Nations. However, it is unclear if this will happen and when the conflict might end.

Meanwhile another kind of war is being waged in Cambodia, but the people involved in this battle are confident it will mean the saving of lives. The not-for-profit organisation International Development Enterprises (IDE), which works to provide income opportunities for the rural poor, is campaigning about sanitation. Diseases linked to poor sanitation cause more deaths in Cambodia than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. More than 10,000 Cambodians die every year due to lack of proper sanitation, most of them young children.

Despite this, many Cambodians view a latrine as a luxury and less than a quarter of rural dwellers have a toilet in their home. In response, IDE and its team in Cambodia have developed a low-cost ‘Easy Latrine’ which last year won ‘Best in Show’ at the International Design Excellence Awards. However, IDE have found that giving away their toilets doesn’t work, because villagers end up frequently not using them.

Backed by USAID Cambodia and the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank, IDE has therefore begun a marketing battle to change attitudes in the rural villages of Cambodia. The BBC reporter, Guy De Launey, watched their campaign in action. In a village in the central province of Kandal, a young facilitator gives a presentation on how much human waste surrounds the villagers when they defecate in the open. Talking about the tonnes of excrement produced in just one year, the tactic is to provoke disgust and shame. And it seems to be working, because once the presentation is finished, many of those listening sign up to buying a toilet. IDE’s ‘Easy latrine’ costs 30 dollars and can be installed straight-away by local companies. Thus the scheme also provides economic income for local people. Already, over 10,000 latrines have been sold. This shows that with the right battle tactics, attitudes can finally be changed. The hope is to make toilets a new status symbol in Cambodia and hence save the lives of many adults and children.

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