The Jaggery Trader

Ko Hmat Kyi, 46, is a small business owner in Tetma village, located in the Dry Zone of Myanmar. He supports his family through his palm tree and vegetable plantations. To make enough jaggery for trading, he has to climb 30 tall palm trees twice a day using a basic ladder made from two tall bamboos.

The sugary sap is collected using a number of small earthen jars. After that, the liquid is mixed into a large pot, boiled and stirred until it thickens to a paste. The worker would then knead the product into small chunks which hardens after being cooled. Inside the rudimentary kitchen where the jaggery is prepared, the air is hot, dense and sweet.

In the past, Ko Hmat Kyi had no choice but to send his eldest son to fetch water in the day as his time was fully occupied with his jaggery business. To get clean water, his son often had to travel to a neighbouring village and queue for two to three hours to wait for his turn at the tube well or hand pump. This also meant that on days when he went to collect water, he would have to miss school.

Ko Hmat Kyi and his family

Things got better for Ko Hmat Kyi’s family in 2016. In partnership with Myanmar Engineering Society (MES), Lien AID completed a pilot project in Myanmar, enabling villagers in Tetma village to gain better access to clean water via a solar-powered, gravity-fed water distribution system.

Ko Hmat Kyi told us that better access to clean water has not only made life more convenient for his family, but it also led to an improvement in the school grades of his eldest son. He was able to pass his university entrance exams and now studies at a university in the city of Yangon.

Read more about our pilot project in Myanmar here.

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 Village Poet

Bothingone Village, Myanmar

At 69, deputy village chief and Water Management Committee (WMC) chairman U San Yee is remarkably agile and energetic for someone his age. Dressed in a traditional Burmese longyi, he cheerfully led the way from the wooden jetty to the village, unbothered by the blazing sun and blistering heat. Beneath our feet, the soil was parched and cracked, and I could feel the heat radiating through the soles of my sandals.

Like many other villages in the south of the Ayeyarwaddy region, Bothingone village experiences an annual dry season of sparse rainfall that lasts for about 5 months. During this time, the only rudimentary rainwater harvesting pond in the village often dries up, leaving villagers with just a handful of hand-dug tube wells and pumps to obtain clean water for consumption. Sometimes, they have to travel to neighbouring village of Sarchet to collect water with jerry cans. It is common for villagers to ration water use during the dry summer months.

The existing pond in Bothingone village, which is the villagers’ main source of clean water. During the dry summer months, this pond sometimes dries up.

Jerry cans used to collect water

One of U San Yee’s grandchildren playing near the jerry cans.

As the chairman of the Water Management Committee, U San Yee was determined to tackle the water challenges and improve the villagers’ access to clean water. Under his leadership, the village made a unified decision to increase the catchment capacity of the existing pond to help tide them through the dry summer months.

Besides being a village leader and water champion, it turns out that U San Yee is also an aspiring writer and poet. Having experienced and survived the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, he decided to use poetry as a means to educate fellow villagers about the importance of protecting water resources and to encourage them to respect nature. As we sat down inside his home, he took out a notebook, and proudly showed us the poem he had penned.

U San Yee’s poem in Burmese.

This is the English version of the poem*:

Climate changes due to the unbalanced ecosystem,

followed by various natural disasters.

Do not regret only when you suffer such disasters.

Preparation with careful consideration,

will lead to peaceful deliverance of such disasters.

A united effort would breed resilience and sustainability.

Practise continuously,

to create a beautiful environment.

With optimism for the future,

by handing down these good practices to our children.


Dear fellow citizens,

be prepared and observant of

climate changes due to the unbalanced ecosystem.

With the effects of severe heat

and drought that resembles

A child without a mother, a fish out of water –

troubled and deprived,

Be prepared and observant.

If only to be awaken by a deep regret,

as helplessness leads to further errors and degradation

with lives at stake.

*This is an unofficial translation and provided for reference only.

U San Yee’s support and influence proved to be paramount to the successful implementation of the clean water project in Bothingone village. Earlier this year, rehabilitation works to expand the capacity of the existing village pond began. When completed, this project is expected to enable over 1,000 villagers from 220 households to gain better access to clean water.

Construction to expand the capacity of the existing water catchment pond began earlier this year.

Close to the end of our visit, I asked U San Yee about his hopes and dreams for his grandchildren, as well as his advice for the younger generation. He left us with the following words of wisdom:

“My wishes are very simple. I hope for my grandchildren and great grandchildren to be healthy and educated. I hope they travel out of the village to explore the world outside. For the younger generation, my advice would be to stay healthy, build family unity and practise lifelong learning.”

U San Yee with a few of his grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Some of U San Yee’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.

This project in Bothingone village, Labutta township, Myanmar is implemented as one of Lien AID’s pilot clean water projects in the Ayeyarwaddy region.

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 Tears Fall, But My Mind is Strong

By the time our boat arrived at Kakayo village, located in the south part of the Ayeyarwady region in Myanmar, a small crowd had gathered at the wooden jetty. A tall, slender woman stood out from the crowd. Greeting me with a firm handshake, she introduced herself as Daw Mu Mu, a member of the village development committee.

Daw Mu Mu standing at the edge of the construction site for the new rainwater collection pond.

It soon became apparent that Daw Mu Mu was a well-respected figure in the village. Carrying with her an indefinable air of grace, she led the way with long strides as we surveyed the construction site for the new rainwater collection pond. Apart from sitting on the village development committee, the 51-year-old woman wears many other hats – she is also a mother, provision shop owner and farmer.

Unwilling to let her only daughter, Myint Zu Aung, accept the fate of an ordinary village girl, Daw Mu Mu’s foresight led her to a neighboring village in 2008, where she worked hard to earn more income so that her daughter could attend school in nearby Labutta city. Her husband stayed behind, working as a fisherman like most of the other men in the village. The couple worked hard to support their child, in the hopes that she will eventually lead a better life than they did.

Then Cyclone Nargis struck. Having never experienced a natural disaster of this scale, Daw Mu Mu rushed back to the village not knowing what to expect. Nothing could have prepared her for the extent of the damage that was done. The cyclone had wiped out most of the village population, leaving behind it a trail of wrecked homes, uprooted trees, dead animals and disfigured human corpses.

Daw Mu Mu’s husband was nowhere to be found. With her husband presumed lost, the only short-lived moment of happiness came when she found her daughter, who had managed to catch a boat ride back to the village after the cyclone. When asked what they had said to each other then, Myint Zu Aung replied,

“We could not speak. We could only hug each other and cry.”

Myint Zu Aung, Daw Mu Mu’s daughter. She is now 20 years old.

Though shackled by grief, Daw Mu Mu did not have the luxury of mourning for her lost loved ones for long. She went back to work and started to rebuilt the village with others, working twice as hard as before, this time singlehandedly supporting her daughter’s school fees. Miraculously, her husband returned unharmed after being missing for 2 years and 4 months. It turns out that his fishing boat got carried away by the current and ended up on the Indian shores.

Myint Zu Aung’s English exercise book.

But the problems kept coming. The village’s only source of relatively clean water was two village ponds, with water levels often dropping dangerously low during the dry season. In 2016, the ponds dried up, and the children in the village started drinking dirty water when their parents were away fishing or farming.

Women collecting water at the existing pond with buckets.

It was not long before the village was hit by a diarrhoea epidemic. Many of those affected were young children. Daw Mu Mu and the other villagers converted the village school into a makeshift health centre to quarantine and care for the patients. Tragically, they could not save a two-year-old boy in time and he passed away.

Daw Mu Mu was devastated and could not bear the thought of losing more family and friends. She was determined to improve living conditions in the village, starting from better access to clean water. Early this year, construction began on the new fenced pond and hand pumps in the village. When completed, the new rainwater collection pond will provide an additional source of clean water for the villagers during the driest months.

The construction site for the new rainwater collection pond.

Daw Mu Mu hopes that villagers will enjoy better health after the new pond and hand pumps have been completed. Like many of the other villagers, her daughter regard her as a role model. When I commented on her strength and resilience, what she said stuck with me throughout the rest of my journey in Myanmar.

“I keep my feelings to myself.”, she said softly. “The tears fall, but my mind is strong.”

This project in Kakayo village, Labutta Township co-funded by Lien AID, is implemented under our pilot clean water projects in the Ayeyarwady region in Myanmar, and expected to be completed in 2017.

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.



The Prettiest Student Village Officer

Puban Village, Gangkou Town

When villagers in Puban are asked about Zhangli, they invariably refer to her as the “Prettiest Student Villager Officer (最美丽的村官)”. Zhangli was a fresh graduate and young mother of a little girl when she decided to apply to work in a rural village as a Student Village Officer (大学生村官). Driven by her passion for helping others, she applied to and passed the Chongqing Municipal Committee’s selection exams with flying colours, and was subsequently assigned to Puban village in Gangkou town, Wulong county. As a Student Village Officer, she would take up residence at Puban village, supporting and implementing the Chinese government’s poverty alleviation policies at the grassroots level, and work to improve the well-being of the villagers.

Shortly after she arrived at Puban village in 2010, she was approached by a villager who was in dire straits from the death of more than 200 mountain goats that his entire household had depended upon for their livelihood. Together with some of the village leaders, they investigated the case and found that the goats had died due to the spread of disease in the dirty pens, which could not be cleaned regularly due to the lack of clean water. Subsequent visits, interviews and chats with other households in the village also unearthed similar issues. The root cause of their struggles with improving their means of livelihood was invariably linked to the lack of clean water.

Student Village Officer (SVO) Zhang Li

Zhang Li with some of the “left-behind” children in Puban village

Thus when Zhangli found out about Lien AID’s Village Water Management programme, she submitted a project proposal for Puban village. However, as a certain amount of co-funding from local governments and villagers was required, Zhangli initially faced a shortfall of funds for the project. She refused to give up however, as she knew that a piped water system would enable the villagers to have a better quality of life. Whenever Zhangli talked to the “left-behind” children in the village, she would be reminded of her daughter, whom she had left behind to take up the post at Puban village. She was determined to make the project a success so that they would have a better life with clean tap water.

Zhangli, the village head and Lien AID at a site visit to the completed project

Zhangli, the village head and Lien AID at a site visit to the completed project

With the support of Lien AID, the local governments, and the villagers, she worked tirelessly to raise the necessary funds and made sure the project stayed on tract, and was able to successfully coordinate and supervise the construction of the rural piped water system in Puban village. Although she often had no time during the weekends to visit her daughter and husband, who were living in another town, she found satisfaction in the fact that the villagers and the children no longer had to fetch water or depend on unreliable water sources.

“While implementing the clean water project, I gained not just technical knowledge in rural water facility construction but also learned how to resolve issues and manage stakeholders. The learning curve was steep but it was a great experience which allowed me to grow from a young graduate into a mature grassroots worker.”

In 2013, after the completion of the project, she was feted as one of the inspiring figures of Wulong county in the television programme “Ten Figures Inspiring Wulong” (感动武隆十大人物). Even though she is no longer working as a Student Village Officer at Puban village, she continues to serve the rural communities through her capacity as the chairwoman of the Women’s Federation of Gangkou town in Wulong county. And the villagers still remember her as the “Prettiest Student Villager Officer (最美丽的村官)”.

You can learn more about our work in China here

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.