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Women find vocation cleaning up Cambodia's floating villages

iDE is powering locals to monetize the collection of plastic

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Trash collector Nov Saroeun cuts a striking figure on her traditional long boat

Navigating her traditional long boat between the houses in this floating Cambodian village, trash collector Nov Saroeun cuts a striking figure. She pulls alongside each awkward wooden structure before squeaking a toy horn, alerting the family inside to her presence. If a household hands her a haul of empty plastic water bottles, she will give them a modest payment based on the bottles’ weight, and then make a small profit when she sells them at the collection point of a private recycling company.

To earn a living, the 62-year-old works most of the day, paddling the murky waters of the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. While her margins are small, Saroeun is happy in her work. As a widow, she acknowledges her livelihood opportunities are few. Fishing is the main source of income in these low-income lakeside communities, but the industry is strictly regulated, limiting its profitability — and it’s traditionally dominated by men, leading women like Saroeun to pursue work in waste picking. “It is hard work. But I really like this business,” she says. “Besides, I have no choice. I am a woman and I am reaching old age. And it helps the environment.”

Ho Vuta, a local village chief says people live on floating villages because they can't afford mainland housing

“Most people have no choice. They just live here and fish.”

While waste presents a challenge across Cambodia, here among the floating villages and dense lakeside communities, sanitation and solid waste management are limited. In the dry season, when most of the waterway’s contents drain into the Mekong River, trash piles on the shoreline, tributaries and floodplains. The lake is also heavily contaminated with fecal matter and agricultural chemical pollutants. According to a 2019 study published in Science of the Total Environment, bacterial concentrations are particularly acute around floating villages — designed to rise above annual flood waters — causing residents to commonly suffer from waterborne diseases.

Ho Vuta, a local village chief, says people in his community have endured the challenges of living on the water because they couldn’t afford mainland housing, and the government would not let them title land beside the lake. “Most people have no choice. They just live here and fish,” he says. While locals traditionally earned a living in the fishing industry, recent government restrictions have made it less profitable, and many young people have left school to find work in city garment factories, he explains. Local services are also limited: Young children are educated in a village primary school, but older students must travel 15 minutes by boat to the closest mainland town to attend high school. And the village has dealt with a lack of formal waste collection services, making it difficult to dispose of plastic bottles and bags. “People burn their trash on the land, but some people still throw it in the water,” he says.

To help combat the lake’s waste challenges, iDE is leading improvement efforts for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) under the European Union-funded project, Generating Resilient Environments and Promoting Socio-Economic Development of the East Tonle Sap, known as the GREEN project. The €4 million project is targeting 8,000 households in three Cambodian provinces — Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and Kampong Thom — that surround the bottom half of the waterway. About one third of the funding is aimed at WASH interventions, which support the efforts of small-scale entrepreneurs to build flood-resistant, pour-and-flush pit latrines, distribute water filters, and manage solid waste. Under the solid waste part of the project, iDE is powering local women like Nov Saroeun to figure out how to effectively monetize the collection of plastic and other kinds of trash, providing them with business training, teaching them skills such as bookkeeping and customer targeting.

Made from empty bottles, strung together in old fishing nets, this BioBar forms a floating barrier to catch trash

Barrier catches trash and teaches children to manage natural resources

As well as supporting trash collectors, iDE is experimenting with a low-tech trash collection device known as a BioBar. Made from empty bottles, strung together in old fishing nets, the device forms a floating barrier designed to catch drifting trash (as shown in the photo above). One of the bars is tied between the shore and a floating school, which serves the children from the local community. Save the Children, which leads the broader GREEN project and is providing educational services, is working with iDE, using the BioBar to teach primary schoolchildren the importance of properly managing natural resources. “There is no trash around the school anymore. Before it used to make a bad smell,” says principal Tall Van Hong.

According to Tyler Kozole, WASH program director at iDE Cambodia, iDE is exploring several other options to create livelihoods and collect trash in the Tonle Sap. “We’re piloting new community and household waste collection and value extraction models, as well as assessing demand for solid waste collection services for rural households,” he says. Meanwhile, iDE is paying for market research through a Paul Polak Innovation Fund grant, examining the barriers confronting local middle-sized service operators working in rural solid waste management. “We are putting a deeper market systems lens on this, with the hope that other intervention ideas will materialize,” Kozole says.

Kong Nai, 66, can go to the toilet in the comfort of her own home rather than empty a bucket into the lake

Sky Latrines installed by entrepreneurs rise above floodwaters

In addition to trash collection, iDE is working to address other WASH-related challenges in Cambodia’s floating villages — including the need for better toilet facilities that can withstand the area’s frequent floods. One of those toilets went to Kong Nai, 66, who lives in a traditional wooden house, constructed on stilts three meters (10 feet) above the ground, on Krang Ptel village on an island in the Tonle Sap River. Because she didn’t have a latrine, for years she endured the indignity of relieving herself in a bucket, which she emptied into the lake, like most people in her community. With bad knees, she would struggle down a ladder from her house and make her way to the muddy shoreline once a day, ensuring no-one could see her, to empty the bucket.

But now, as the proud owner of a “Sky Latrine” — paid for with a GREEN project subsidy — the grandmother of 13 can go to the toilet in the comfort of her own home. “I don’t have to go to the riverbank anymore,” she says. Using a unique design, created by iDE, Nai’s latrine consists of an underground concrete pit, which can be submerged in water when the lake floods, connected by a long pipe to the head of a squat toilet located in the house above. A thin air pipe emerging from the pit prevents a vacuum from forming, and ensures the toilet can flush even when the pit is deep underwater.

“Demand isn’t as big a problem as we thought it would be,” says Tyler Kozole. “It was a pleasant surprise. People want toilets in these areas.” However, he says that supplying heavy concrete latrine components had been challenging, sometimes requiring several boat trips, as communities are often in remote areas where construction materials are not readily available. To address this, iDE sales agents — recruited locally — use a “sanitation marketing” approach to sell latrines door-to-door, which are then installed by local small business owners, also trained by iDE, who cast the toilet components.

Through these WASH-focused products and programs, iDE is working to enable local individuals and businesses to address the unique sanitation-related challenges faced by Cambodia’s floating villages. This work illustrates the multifaceted impacts that can be achieved by providing local communities with the tools and knowledge they need to address their core development challenges through entrepreneurship.

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