Study reveals barriers and opportunities in confronting climate change impacts on rural WASH

A man with vision impairment stands in his home post flood in Svay Antor District, Prey Veng, Cambodia.

A man with vision impairment stands in front of his home post flood in Svay Antor District, Prey Veng (Thrive Networks/East Meets West / Sin Chantha)  


A recent study conducted in rural Cambodia has revealed the impacts of climate change on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and captured the perspectives of water and sanitation suppliers responsible for delivering these services to communities. The research findings are now providing evidence for building climate-resilient and inclusive WASH services in rural Cambodia.

The project, Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation Measures, and Inclusive Resilience Systems in WASH: A Case Study of Marginalised Communities in Rural Cambodia, assessed the impacts of climate change and explored the role of private sector suppliers in helping to mitigate these. Supported by the Australian government through a Water for Women Innovation and Impact (I&I) grant, the study was conducted by Thrive Networks/East Meets West in two phases.

During the first phase, researchers surveyed 423 households and 96 local authorities across five rural provinces. The survey results established a strong link between socio-economic vulnerability, hygienic practices, climate vulnerability, and resilience. Geographic factors were also found to significantly influence households' experiences of flood and drought impacts, and their awareness of adaptation practices. Interviews with climate experts, policymakers, and WASH suppliers further highlighted the limited adaptive capacity of rural households and communities, primarily due to a lack of information, knowledge about climate change and adaptation measures, and financial resources.

The research found strong correlations between households' experience of climate hazards and their geographical characteristics and income sources. Most households in rural Cambodia rely on farming, therefore the impacts of floods and droughts on their livelihoods, crop yields, income, and access to basic amenities are significant. Coping measures vary depending on village characteristics, household economic status, education level, and gender, among other factors. Poor and socially disadvantaged households face greater challenges than others when it comes to coping with climate change impacts.

“It is important that the government provide clean water quickly, on time and sufficiently for its people! There are still many good ways that the government can provide for vulnerable people, but they must find the ways.” 

- Head of Water and Environmental Engineering Program, Institute of Technology Cambodia

The second phase of the study involved an innovative scenario field experiment and focus group discussions with water and sanitation suppliers. The experiment aimed to understand the types of adaptation measures suppliers are willing to undertake, and their preferred financing options to provide resilient WASH services and products to marginalised communities. 

The research revealed that many suppliers prefer to receive financial support from non-governmental organisations (NGOs); a primary reason cited being a perception of lower interest rates offered by NGOs compared to traditional banks and micro-financing institutions. Suppliers believe that obtaining financial assistance from NGOs can help them overcome financial barriers more effectively. Additionally, suppliers expressed a lack of confidence in local authorities and existing action plans to support operators in working with the community to protect waterways and pipe networks. This has led water suppliers to seek alternative funding sources, viewing NGOs as potential partners who can provide the necessary financial support while also aligning with their goals and values.

Flood scene in Sak Sampov Sangkat, Dangkor Khan, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Flood scene in Sak Sampov, Sangkat, Dangkor Khan, Phnom Penh (Thrive Networks/East Meets West / Yousos Apdoulrashim)

The study also found that water operators, responsible for the provision and maintenance of water supply systems, often face more significant financing needs compared to sanitation suppliers. This is primarily due to the higher costs associated with infrastructure development, maintenance, and operational expenses. Water operators identified their primary cash flow requirement as filling the gaps resulting from non-payment by poor households. The challenge of collecting payments from marginalised communities and low-income households poses financial strains on water operators, affecting their ability to ensure continuous and reliable water supply services. Sanitation suppliers, on the other hand, highlighted different perspectives regarding financing and government support. While their financing needs are generally lower those working in challenging environments, such as areas with hard ground or frequent flooding, face higher costs related to installation and transportation.

In addition to financial support, suppliers expressed a desire for government support with WASH awareness raising, increasing demand for sanitation services, and reducing stigma against sanitation workers. They consider government support to play a crucial role in fostering a supportive environment for WASH initiatives and improving community engagement.

Interestingly, all water and sanitation suppliers involved in the study expressed a shared view that adaptive sanitation products and services should be provided to the poor free of charge. However, that the provision of free services would be best funded by donors or philanthropic organisations due to the significant financial viability risks they encounter. The WASH business environment, in their view, is characterised by low profit margins, risky revenue streams, and high operational costs, particularly for water operators.

Broader WASH sector contributions

The findings of this research project have significant implications for WASH sector stakeholders in Cambodia. The findings call for innovative approaches and collaborative efforts among NGOs, governments, and philanthropic organisations to address the financial risks faced by water and sanitation suppliers in order to support the sustainable provision of WASH services to vulnerable communities.

The findings also highlight that, despite national level policies and strategies in Cambodia, there is a lack of practical mechanisms at the institutional level for enacting climate change adaptation policies. Films, photo stories, video interviews, and research reports compiled by the researchers now offer evidence for policies and practices that promote resilient and inclusive WASH at the household, community and institutional levels. The research findings underscore the importance of inclusive policies, capacity building, and financial support to enhance the adaptive capacity of communities and ensure the sustainability of WASH services in the face of climate change.

Thrive Networks/East Meets West is also applying learnings from this project in their current Water for Women project in Cambodia, Community-Led Inclusive Climate-Resilient WASH.

Other learning and knowledge from the project:

Contact Us