When Water Becomes Poison

Kouk Thlork Commune, Takeo Province

Kim was one of the friendliest villagers we encountered. When he heard where we were from, he waved us over to share the space on his wooden platform bed.

Kim is a rice farmer. His father and his grandfather were farmers, as were the generations above them.

Unwilling to let his children be bound by the fate of a rice farmer, Kim worked hard all year planting and harvesting rice. He saved his income to send his children to school. Decades of working barefoot in the rice fields have left his feet gnarly and calloused.

Kim’s hard work paid off. His rice farms grew and he hired men to help him during rice harvest season.

The men he hired worked long and hard hours under the scorching sun. They did not carry water with them as it would hinder their work. When they got thirsty, they scooped water from the river with their hands to drink.

One day, one man started having uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting. With no hospital in the vicinity, Kim placed the sick man on his rickety wooden boat, and rowed across the border to Vietnam, where he sent him to the nearest hospital.

“I was worried that he was going to die. What was I going to say to his parents?” – Kim

The doctor told them that the vomiting and diarrhea was caused by drinking contaminated water. The man recovered but he could not work for the next four days. Kim and his wife took care of him, cooked for him, and paid his hospital bills.

A boy swims in the heavily polluted river.

“This water is poison! You cannot even bathe in it.” He said as he gestured to the Mekong River.

The river is heavily polluted because farmers use so much pesticide, he told us. At low tide, the exposed riverbed is littered with garbage.

With no clean water source, Kim resorted to buying water from Vietnam, which cost $0.63USD for a 20-litre bottle.

When Community Water Enterprise was set up, he was overjoyed. The bottled water from CWE costs just $0.25USD, less than half the price of the imported bottled water.

Bottles of treated drinking water at the CWE treatment plant in Toul Putrea village.

Life improved after he gained access to affordable clean water. He used the money he saved for his children’s education. He could even afford to buy more cows.

Kim tells me proudly, “I have four cows now. And I have more rice.”

Kim’s wife now lives with one of their children in Phnom Penh. Kim lives and works alone on his farm, sending most of his income to his children whom are still in school.

Kim Ly, with bags of rice inside his home.

“If I could change one thing about the past, I wished that we knew about the water. Our lives would have been better and our children healthier.” – Kim Ly

This project in Kouk Thlork Commune was supported with co-funding from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

The Last Fall

Wang Bangxian lives in Tiantaishan village in Guizhou province, China. On a rainy day many years ago, she set off on the long and arduous journey home after fetching buckets of clean water from a mountain spring. When full, her buckets weighed as much as she did.

Wang Bangxian demonstrating how she used to fetch water with buckets. The buckets are now used to transport animal feed and fertiliser instead.

She had to make the trip twice a day, rain or shine, in order to fetch enough water for drinking, cooking and washing.

On that fateful day, the rain had made the precipitous, mud-strewn trails even more slippery and dangerous. In a hurry to get home to her infant son, Wang Bangxian tripped and fell, breaking her foot and spilling the water.

“It was so painful that I cried.” – Wang Bangxian

The mountain trails are often muddy and slippery after a heavy rain.

Wang Bangxian recalls being bedridden for weeks after her fall.

She eventually made it home, but for half a month afterwards, Wang Bangxian was bedridden. Her husband had to sacrifice farming time to fetch water for the family. As farmers who depend solely on their crops for income, their livelihood was threatened.

Wang Bangxian and her husband still farms potatoes and sweet potatoes, which are photographed above in their home.

Over time, she was able to get back to her normal routine but her foot still hurts to this day. Rolling up her pants, she showed me a visible raised bump on her foot about the size of a small grape.

The raised bump on Wang Bangxian’s foot shows the site of her injury. With limited access to medical care back then, she used herbs to nurse her foot back to health.

Wang Bangxian was overjoyed when Village Water Management (VWM) programme brought access to clean piped water right to her home. These days, she no longer has to carry heavy loads of water along treacherous mountain roads, and has more time for farming and raising livestock.

This project in Tiantaishan village, Guizhou implemented under the Village Water Management (VWM) programme in China, is co-funded by CITIC Envirotech.

 The Village Water Management (VWM) programme mentors a regionally or nationally available platform of grassroots leaders residing within the community, enabling them to implement clean water projects for the sustenance and development of their communities. The VWM programme is delivered in locations where available water sources are relatively clean but significantly distant from households.

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Burnt, but not broken

Tiantaishan Village, Guizhou Province

Ran Fangqing, 46

Ran Fangqing, 46, lives in a small village deep in the mountains of Guizhou province, China. A fire during his childhood left him partially blind in one eye and half of his face covered in a complex network of scar tissue.

The fire, however, was just the beginning of a string of unfortunate events. Fangqing eventually got married, only to have his wife depart soon after the birth of his only son, leaving him to juggle the roles of both a father and a mother.

Beyond parenting duties, as the only abled-bodied person and sole bread-winner of the household, Fangqing also had to travel daily along treacherous mountain trails to fetch water, cook, wash, provide and care for his aging mother and infant son.

Ran Fangqing’s mother inside their home

Life only got more difficult when his elderly mother became senile. She started to panic whenever Fangqing left the house, and refused to eat whenever he was not around.

As her conditions deteriorated, Fangqing was unable to even leave the house to fetch water. With few other alternative water sources, the family had to sometimes resort to drinking from muddy puddles and ditches.

When we visited, his mother was already incoherent in her speech. The elderly woman had lost all her teeth and her movements appeared to be laboured. She used a pair of bamboo sticks as makeshift crutches to move around the small house. The only coherent words that she uttered when we were there were strange and somewhat morbid – “I do not want to be buried in these clothes”, she said.

For years, Fangqing struggled to fulfill the family’s most basic needs – food and water. A heavy burden was lifted off his shoulders when Lien AID’s Village Water Management programme brought clean water from a mountain spring directly to his home. On the day we visited, he was just about to cook lunch. He washed and prepared the food while keeping a close eye on his mother.

Fangqing washing vegetables using clean piped water right in his home.

Fangqing preparing a meal in the kitchen as his mother wanders about the house using her makeshift crutches.

Having clean water piped directly to his house has not only made life more convenient, but it has also improved the quality of life for Fangqing and his small family. Soon after he gained affordable and convenient access to clean piped water, Fangqing started raising chickens and fish to earn more income. He now maintains a small chicken coop as well as several fishponds in the vicinity of his home.

“In the past, we did not even have enough water to drink. Now, life has gotten better. I have enough water to rear chickens and fish.” Almost all of the extra income that Fangqing earns now goes towards supporting his only son, who will soon graduate from high school in a nearby town.

Fangqing’s chicken coop

Fangqing’s home – the chicken coop is on the right while his fish pond is visible in the background.

Although life is still far from easy, but Fangqing remains hopeful about the future. “My biggest wish is that my son can continue his studies in university.” He told us. “I want him to have a promising future, and lead a better life than I ever did.”

The water storage tank, from which water is now directly piped to the village homes.

This project in Tiantaishan village, Guizhou province, implemented under the Village Water Management programme in China, was co-funded by CITIC Envirotech.

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He Would Have Been 7 This Year

Thai Thorn was a special boy.

Despite being born in the floating village of Deyroneath with difficult living conditions, Thai Thorn was a happy child, who found delight in little things like his toy gun and car. Thai Thorn’s mother described him as a bright child. He was adorable. He was playful. He was talkative.

He was also mature for a three-year old. At lunch time, he would scan the lake for his father. When he spotted his father’s boat, he would call out to him to come home for lunch.

For generations, families in the floating village have been drinking from the lake that they defecate in. Thai Thorn, like most children in the village, suffered from poor health, typhoid and chronic diarrhoea.

Children in the village often drink from and play in the same lake that they defecate in

When Thai Thorn was three, he had fever and diarrhoea again. Having experienced this situation countless times before, the family gave him the usual medication they used for their other children.

But this time round, the medication did not work and the fever persisted for four days. On the fifth day, they got hold of a nurse and the suspected diagnosis was dengue fever.  Thai Thorn was given an injection and put on drip.

But it was too late. Two hours later, he stopped breathing.

Thai Thorn’s mother, Pong, sits facing the corner where he took his last breath.

With no money and land nearby for a proper burial in the wet season, the family wrapped the boy’s body in cloth and hung it on a tree. When the dry season came and parts of the lake dried up, they took the remains down and buried him.

Pong was devastated over losing her youngest child and cried for a month. It took her 3 years to get over his death.

“I always think about him when we sit down to eat together. Sometimes it still makes me cry. He would have been seven this year,” she says softly.

While the exact cause of Thai Thorn’s death may never be known, the lack of clean water had played a part in his frequent diarrhoea and poor health.

After his death, the family grew increasingly concerned over the health of their other children.  It was unthinkable if the same tragedy happened to their youngest daughter, Thai Heav.

Thai Heav, 11, drinks clean water from the CWE treatment plant.

When Community Water Enterprise (CWE) came to the village, the family was finally able to afford clean drinking water. Today, the family also practices better hygiene habits, and monitor the health of their children more closely. Diarrhea and fever are no longer usual occurrences among Thai Thorn’s siblings.

This project in Meteuk Commune implemented under the Community Water Enterprise programme in Cambodia, was supported with co-funding from Sabana REIT.

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The Last Journey Down The Water

Deyroneath Village, Meteuk Commune, Pursat Province

Extract: This story was told by Sou and Tab, villagers in the floating village of Deyroneath. They tell of the tragic loss of their first son, and how life has gotten better since CWE enabled villagers to gain sustainable access to clean water.  

The Tonle Sap lake has long been revered for being one of the world’s most varied and productive ecosystems. As the largest freshwater lake in Asia, it is also home to the floating communities of Cambodia. These floating communities clean, bathe and defecate in the lake that they live on. Most of them are fishermen and depend on the contaminated water for their livelihood.

A girl in the floating village of Deyroneath

Left: A typical houseboat; right: a lady selling drinks and snacks in the floating village.

Tab Savoeuon, 39, lived with her husband and their 7-month-old on in the floating village. Tired from a long day of work, Tab stopped to take a rest on the hammock as her son played inside the dark and narrow houseboat. Her husband was out on a fishing boat.

Tab Savoeuon, 39

When Tab opened her eyes again, her son was missing. Frantic, she and the other villagers searched for him in the murky water.

Finally, at 5am, they found him. His tiny body was motionless, face down on a bed of water hyacinth.

Water hyacinth on the Tonle Sap Lake

Nobody knows for sure how the baby had ended up there. We could only guess that when his mother closed her eyes for just a minute, the baby must have crawled to the edge of the boat. Maybe he was looking at fish and fell into the water. Maybe he too, fell asleep and rolled off the edge of the boat. But it does not matter because he was gone.

Tab’s husband earned a meagre income from fishing, and the family did not even have money for a burial or a proper funeral. They placed their son’s body in an empty barrel, which drifted down the lake with the current. Villagers gathered to send the boy on his last journey down the water.

Tab and her husband, Sou Sok, were devastated after the death of their first son but life moves on. Years later, they went on to have five more children. Life only got more difficult. Sou was out on a fishing boat all day and Tab had to cook, wash, clean and take care of her young children alone in the day. She could barely rest for fear that another one of her young children would fall into the water and drown.

Tab preparing a meal inside the dark and narrow houseboat

With no affordable clean water source, the family of seven used the contaminated surface water for cooking and drinking. The children fell ill often with diarrhoea and fever.

Sok Chovam, 6, the couple’s youngest child

When her children fell sick, Tab could only sleep 1-2 hours  a night. She stayed up to put ice on her children’s swollen stomachs to ease their pain.

“We had to borrow money to buy medicine.  I was so tired and worried. I fell sick too.“ – Tab

Things finally took a turn for the better when Sou Sok, Tab’s husband, became a water entrepreneur. He was determined to make life better for his family and fellow villagers.

Sou Sok, 51, Water Entrepreneur

Sou Sok now earns enough income from being a water entrepreneur, and does not have to go out on the fishing boat anymore. The family moved their houseboat right next to the water treatment plant. Sou Sok can now help to look after his children, so the tragedy that happened 20 years ago will not repeat.

Left: Sok San, 11, playing outside the water treatment plant; right: front view of the CWE water treatment plant

After gaining access to clean water, Sou and Tab’s children have not had serious diarrhoea for the past year. With better health, they do not miss school as frequently as before.

Sok Chovam doing homework on the houseboat

The tragic loss of their first child remains a thorn in their heart, but Sou and Tab are glad that they have more time to look after their children after he became a water entrepreneur.

When asked about his hopes for the future, Sou said, “I want to make life better for my children. I want them to be healthy and finish school.”

This project in Meteuk Commune implemented under the Community Water Enterprise programme in Cambodia, was supported with co-funding from Sabana REIT.



Meet the coffee connoisseur of Anglong Tean village

Anglong Tean Village, Borei Cholsar Commune

It was almost midday when the car pulled into the village of Anglong Tean in Takeo province. Located just 2 hours south of the bustling city of Phnom Penh, this quiet, serene village set along the Cambodia-Vietnam border seemed worlds apart.

Farmers working in rice fields in Anglong Tean village, Cambodia

Farmers working in rice fields in Anglong Tean Village, Cambodia

Cows grazing in the fields in Anglong Tean village

Cows grazing in the fields in Anglong Tean village

After passing through acres of rice fields set against the dramatic backdrop of the Mekong River, we finally came to a stop on the dirt road. I got out of the car feeling slightly disoriented from the bumpy ride and nearly tripped over a chicken, much to the amusement of the local children.

Children in Anglong Tean village, Takeo Province, Cambodia

Children in Anglong Tean village, Takeo Province, Cambodia

Feeling rather hot and thirsty, we decided to get a drink at the first provision shop that we came upon. Run by a warm, friendly lady named Se Hin, the shop was small but well-stocked – the shelves were lined with jars full of candies, crackers and cookies, sodas in every colour of the rainbow, small toys and a dizzying variety of household items.

(Left) Shop owner Se Hin; (right) coffee made by Se Hin.

(Left) Shop owner Se Hin; (right) coffee made by Se Hin.

At Se Hin’s insistence, I got an iced coffee – her specialty, as I was told. The first sip that I took left me pleasantly surprised. The coffee was dark and smooth, comparable to what you would expect in a hip café somewhere else in the world!

Se Hin making a cup of coffee

Se Hin making a cup of coffee inside her shop

Se Hin, as it turns out, was not born and raised here. She came to Anglong Tean village from Vietnam 20 years ago in search of a better life. She started off by working long, strenuous hours as a farmer in the rice fields.

Life was difficult back then. She could not afford a proper stilted house, so in the wet season, Se Hin’s home was partially submerged in water. She had to sleep on a hammock that hung precariously from the roof.

One year, the area was hit by a big flood and her crops were destroyed, taking with them her only source of income.

But Se Hin was strong-willed and ambitious. Unwilling to let her four young children go hungry, she took a bank loan and opened the provision shop, selling porridge, coffee, snacks and other household items.

However, it was not long before she had new problems. The water from the Mekong river was polluted with feces and pesticide. People were getting sick from drinking the contaminated water. Se Hin started buying bottled clean water daily from Vietnam to make coffee and porridge to sell.

The Mekong river that runs alongside Anglong Tean village. Vietnam is accessible by boat from the village.

The Mekong river that connects Anglong Tean village to Vietnam

Sometimes, the water did not arrive in time and she would have to make multiple trips to a pond to fetch buckets of water. The amount of porridge and coffee that she sold depended on the amount of water that she could collect.

A girl fetching water. Before Community Water Enterprise (CWE) came to the village, Se Hin sometimes had to make multiple trips to fetch water with buckets.

A girl fetching water. Before Community Water Enterprise (CWE) came to the village, Se Hin sometimes had to make multiple trips to fetch water.

When Community Water Enterprise (CWE) came to the village, Se Hin was one of the first ones to jump on board. With better access to affordable clean water, she can finally make more porridge and coffee to sell, and earn more income to support her family.

Bottles of clean water in the CWE treatment plant in Anglong Tean village.

Bottles of clean water in the CWE treatment plant in Anglong Tean village.

With better access to clean water, Se Hin can make more coffee and porridge to sell and earn more income to support her family.

With better access to clean water, Se Hin can make more coffee and porridge to sell and earn more income to support her family.

“Business is good now”, she tells me. “People used to spend twice as much on imported water from Vietnam. Now they have more money to buy snacks and drinks. I have more income to send my children to school.”

For the first time ever, Se Hin also has the time and money to take care of herself. These days, she can afford to buy new clothes and makeup. “I did not have money or time to look good when I was young. Now I have to catch up”, Se Hin tells me as she proudly shows me her beautifully decorated home right beside the shop.

(Left) Se Hin poses beside her war wardrobe; (right) the interior of her home.

(Left) Se Hin poses beside her wardrobe; (right) the interior of her home.

Before we left, I complimented her on her smile. “Thank you”, she says, “You make me feel beautiful again.”

This project in Borei Cholsar Commune implemented under the Community Water Enterprise programme in Cambodia, was supported with co-funding from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

Coutts Foundation X Lien AID – Bringing Clean Water to 17,959 rural poor in China

Coutts Foundation partnered with Lien AID in February last year for the 5th batch of projects initiated under the Village Water Management programme in China and which were recently completed in July 2015. The 11 projects in this batch are located in the prefectures of Zunyi, Bijie and Anshun in Guizhou province and have received strong local support with 74% of co-funding from local township/ county governments as well as villagers contributing cash or labour in kind.

VWM China Batch 5 projects in Zunyi

VWM China Batch 5 projects in Zunyi

The projects encountered some challenges during the implementation process, largely due to obstructions and delays associated with national rail works in Anshun prefecture as well as resettlement of village groups and rural-urban migration that resulted in a drop in number of villagers requiring clean water access in the selected locations. The continued delays in the completion of the rail works resulted in more than a 6 month delay to projects located in Anshun. We will continue to follow up with the Student Village officers of affected projects as well as the local officials to ensure secure villagers’ access to the water supplies.

VWM China Batch 5 projects in Bijie and Anshun

VWM China Batch 5 projects in Bijie and Anshun

25 Student Village Officers attended the initial 5-day training workshop during the project development and training phase and subsequently 11 of those Officers (for the projects/ villages selected) were mentored throughout the project implementation and construction process.

VWM China Batch 5 Training Workshop

VWM China Batch 5 Training Workshop

To ensure the benefits of the clean water access are realised and sustained over a long period, village water management committees were formalised, with rules and regulations instituted and recognised by local governments. Water tariffs that could support the regular operations and maintenance of the facilities and which were acceptable for the villagers were also agreed upon in discussions with all local community stakeholders. A total of 25 health and hygiene sessions were also held in the 11 villages by the Student Villager Officers.

2,942m3 of water storage capacity and 203km run of pipes have been delivered which will ensure that villagers have access to sufficient supplies of clean water in their households, even during the dry season.

Water storage tank in Gaoxin Village, Yuanhou Township, Chishui County, Zunyi Prefecture

Water storage tank in Gaoxin Village, Yuanhou Township, Chishui County, Zunyi Prefecture

The projects have benefitted 17,959 rural poor in Zunyi, Bijie and Anshun prefectures of Guizhou province with clean water. All water facilities at the 11 villages have been handed over to the local communities to manage and operate, with legal ownership residing in their hands. We will however continue to monitor the usage of the facilities through data collection from water meters and correspondences with local community leaders for another 2 years.

Clean water piped to households in the prefectures of Zunyi, Bijie and Anshun

Clean water piped to households in the prefectures of Zunyi, Bijie and Anshun

Five Minutes with Alexander Maroske from Sir Stamford Raffles Lodge


Late last year we received an unexpected gift – Alexander Maroske, the newly elected Master of Sir Stamford Raffles Lodge in Singapore, selected Lien AID as the adopted charity (of the Lodge) for 2014/2015. We catch up with Alexander in this short interview to find out a little more about their interest in giving to the clean water cause.

According to a BBC report (March 14, 2012), “Conspiracy theories have dogged the Freemasons throughout their existence, fuelled by their secretive image, but for some they are just a gentleman’s club devoted to charitable giving.”

Can you enlighten us on some popular myths surrounding Freemasonry?

Prior to the 1940s, Freemasons was an open organisation, with weekly and monthly publications reporting on meetings, fundraisers and new members that were initiated. The subsequent escalation, however, of tensions in Europe resulted in Freemasons becoming increasingly reticent about their membership and their activities. The Grand Lodges also decided to stop responding to questions and allegations from the public in regards to the activities undertaken by members and this probably strengthened the image of secrecy surrounding us in more recent times.

How is charitable giving a significant aspect of being a Freemason?

When a new member is first initiated, one of the first things he learns about is charitable work. At his initiation, he is received as poor and penniless while being called on to be charitable. This offers him a unique perspective, firstly to consider how it feels to be poor but still retain a charitable spirit. Today there are many free hospitals and retirement houses erected from the contributions of Freemasons.

What contribution to charitable activities have the Masonic Lodges in Singapore made in the past few years?

There are 14 Masonic Lodges meeting at the Freemasons’ Hall in Singapore. Each Lodge adopts a charity every year. In addition to raising funds for their chosen charity, Lodges often volunteer their time and services, including food drives, Christmas parties for under-privileged and disabled children and humanitarian aid to countries suffering from natural disasters.

Can you share with us some interesting experiences you have had in Cambodia?

Nine years ago, I spent 16 days travelling through Cambodia on an eco-tour. Travelling by local modes of transportation and living in villages, I was able to experience a small part of life as a local Cambodian. The roads were a lot worse back then but we survived the bumpy ride in a tiny mini-van from Bangkok all the way to Siem Reap. And while in Siem Reap, I visited the floating villages on the Tonle Sap River and stayed there for a night.

It was there that I experienced the terrible sanitary conditions these communities had to live in, being entirely dependent on the river as a source of water for all their needs – drinking, bathing, cooking and washing with the river water as well as defecating into the river. It came as quite a shock, seeing they had no access to the basic services we take for granted.

What made you decide to select Lien AID as the adopted charity for Sir Stamford Raffles Lodge in Singapore?

Memories of the experience I had while living with the family in Tonle Sap are still vividly etched in my mind and I wanted to use this opportunity to raise awareness of their plight. Lien AID’s cause and efforts in helping these communities were something that resonated strongly with me and I wanted to support their work.

What does water mean to you? And if you could sum it up in one word, what would that be?

Life. Survivability. I spent many years in the army during which I travelled to war torn areas and seen how the struggle for water incited fights; how the lack of clean water led to the proliferation of diseases. In East Timor, we set up a station providing safe water to local NGOs on a 1 for 1 exchange: 1 litre of water for 1 litre of fuel. Fuel was so much more easily available to the locals than clean water!

There was once I came across a little girl with scabies. Her entire back and legs were covered with pus but her parents could not afford to purchase clean water to clean her with every day. Because water is so crucial to life and living with dignity, I really believe that it should be the right of everyone to be able to enjoy clean, sustainable access to water.