In Cambodia, a dual-pronged approach involving French NGO 1001fontaines is helping to extend the delivery of safe drinking water to a wider population, while encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. Eva Leneveu and Amandine Muret describe a model that has the potential to transform access to safe drinking water in regions where delivery of piped water has struggled to meet needs.
In 2022, many developing countries are still struggling to advance towards universal access to safe drinking water. Despite results lying far below targets, most governments keep to the traditional strategy of exclusively supporting the expansion of piped networks. Nobody denies that these systems are a key component of the overall water solution. They have the potential to address all the households’ needs through large volumes of water. But piped supply is also expensive, takes a long time to be built, and can face substantial operations and management issues. This is especially true in rural settings, where both investment and technical capacities are limited.
As a result, large territories remain unserved and new areas, to receive coverage, often end up with services that are not managed safely, because of intermittent supply or contamination issues as a result of poor maintenance.
Cambodia is, unfortunately, facing this challenge. Despite a proactive policy that has leveraged private investment and international development assistance for the past 20 years, piped systems only reach 16% of rural households and rarely match quality standards. More than one in three rural households are deprived of basic water sources. This situation positions access to safe water as a major public health issue, and a key barrier to inclusive and sustainable development.
Since 2005, the French NGO 1001fontaines and its local Cambodian partner Teuk Saat 1001 have designed and brought to scale a solution that overcomes rural water delivery challenges to efficiently provide safe drinking water to the most vulnerable.
Water kiosks are small water purification plants, set up directly in underserved areas with low population density. Water is purified locally and bottled into 20-litre containers, ensuring the quality requirements set by the World Health Organization are met. Bottles are then home delivered and sold at an affordable price, enabling everyone to access this essential service.
These water kiosks are entrusted to local entrepreneurs, trained in all the good practices that lead to a high-quality service. They become financially viable micro-franchisees who pay a fixed percentage of their sales in exchange for a set of services, from consumable supply and water quality monitoring to technical maintenance and business coaching.
A solution for universal access to safe drinking water
Piped water and bottled water appear to work together well by delivering complementary supplies. Water kiosks can ensure last-mile delivery in areas with low population, while piped networks are more likely to cover denser areas, where the high capital costs make better economic sense. The ongoing urbanisation of provinces that were previously rural makes this geographic complementarity all the more interesting as an option that could be rolled out across the country.
The growing concern around the impact of climate change has also highlighted the resilience of water kiosks during drought and flooding episodes, when the priority is to ensure drinking needs are met.
Smaller volumes and lighter infrastructure facilitate emergency response and coping strategies, and make up for intermittent, or even unavailable, piped supply.
Combining these two solutions is already a reality in the field, where they often co-exist without impacting each other negatively. Consumers perceive their added value and know they can fulfill all their domestic needs thanks to piped supply, while relying on bottled water for drinking needs if they doubt the quality of the water being delivered through the piped network.
Leveraging the complementary strengths of piped and bottled water could accelerate the pace towards universal coverage by setting up the right supply solution in each territory. However, this would require significant public planning and sectoral cooperation.
A growing market driven by the private sector
Cambodia started building an enabling environment based on a licensing process for the private sector to increase piped water outreach in rural areas. An estimated 500 private water operators are already offering household connections and there is great potential for expanding services. However, limited access to funding and low technical support to ensure the efficiency of systems has slowed down growth.
In the meantime, bottled water has grown as an attractive market in rural areas. Private investment has become increasingly important, showing the entrepreneurial interest in decentralised facilities for the production of bottled water. An estimated 1500 small family businesses now sell 20-litre containers across the country.
This quick development is linked to strong consumer adoption. Market-based strategies have proven successful in generating behaviour change, positioning packaged drinking water as a high-quality product with the convenience of home delivery. This encourages people to shift from their past practices, such as boiling surface water.
However, as with many bottom-up and demand-driven phenomena, the bottled water sector has been growing without a proper regulatory framework. Countless providers operate under the radar, and the ease of starting such a business at the back of one’s garden has prevented the enforcement of licensing and quality standards.
With consumers now associating bottled water with safety, regulation becomes an imperative, to ensure bottled water plays its part in providing safely managed water services.
Overall, if the engagement of private stakeholders has fostered the expansion of the two supply solutions over the country, and built the case for their economic strength and consumer interest – two key criteria to attract investment – it is high time to move forward with stronger public monitoring and support.
Engaging stakeholders to leverage solutions
The complementarity of piped and bottled water supplies provides a potential pathway to universal coverage by 2030. Major water providers have already expressed interest to further explore it and strengthen the sector, together with the government.
Two key areas would benefit from enhanced public intervention:
• Improving the regulatory framework thanks to a clarified governance, which could unlock the enforcement of quality standards, the follow-up of service expansion, and a licensing process, ensuring the operators have the skills and robustness to implement safe water supply in the long term;
• Ensuring concerted public planning by establishing strategic investment plans at national level, integrating the complementary solutions in the public policies and empowering local authorities to select the relevant option(s) for their territory.
This can only be achieved through the combination of fully engaged stakeholders who are included in decision-making, and knowledgeable operators scaling services that meet quality and sustainability criteria.
Looking ahead, enhanced sectoral cooperation could even lead to innovative approaches, such as an integrated model under which a single operator would manage both supply solutions, creating synergies and facilitating universal coverage with safely managed water services. Such a model would benefit from clear public endorsement and could even attract investors by aggregating financial needs for the whole sector. •
1001fontaines was part of a consortium of Cambodian water stakeholders that built a recommendation plan for the government to leverage the complementarity of water supply solutions. Read its Position Paper here: https://www.1001fontaines.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Complementarity-of-Water-Supply-Solutions.pdf
A sustainable model powered by a franchising approach and public partnerships
1001fontaines and Teuk Saat 1001 have designed an innovative model that catalyses all the stakeholders’ involvement.
Public authorities are a decisive partner of the water kiosk model, providing national endorsement and support to identify the communes that could benefit from this model. At the local level, the land and access to raw water sources are provided by the communal authorities, who have ownership of the kiosk.
Thanks to international development aid and philanthropy, the initial set-up costs and the training of entrepreneurs are covered by grants. This support ensures the entrepreneurs can maintain their water at an affordable price and make a living.
The franchise approach provides a guarantee of the long-term sustainability of the model by ensuring the continuity of service even when an entrepreneur resigns, and provides game-changing support to unlock the sales potential of each kiosk.
This model has led Teuk Saat 1001 to become the first safe bottled water service provider in rural Cambodia. More than 270 water kiosks currently reach one in four rural households and deliver to 850,000 consumers on a daily basis. Thanks to the franchise fees, Teuk Saat 1001 is now a self-sustained social business on operating costs, with 1000 sustainable jobs created in the field.
Building capacities along the safe water value chain
While the private sector plays a major role in developing access to safe water, ensuring that it is positioned as a universal, affordable service can only come from strong public ownership of the sector. It is key to guarantee that safe drinking water remains impact-driven and pursues social outcomes, and does not become just another commodity market. Empowering not only the national government, but also the local authorities, will be decisive to them fulfilling their role in making this essential service available to their community.
Upgrading the quality of the delivered services also requires building the capacities of small, private operators. Independent and unregulated family businesses rarely master the technical and business skills to deliver safe drinking water sustainably, ultimately representing a threat to public health. Setting standard operating procedures and providing continuous training has shown great results, both in the piped network sector and in the bottled water one – the 1001fontaines franchising model being one of the main examples that deserves to be more widely replicated to bridge rural supply gaps.
Finally, enforcing regulation means strengthening the support infrastructure, supply chain and overall water supply expertise, especially to monitor and improve quality. The four decentralised laboratories and logistics platforms set up by 1001fontaines to support the 270 water kiosks across the country are an illustration of the required investment to ensure close follow-up of water services. Similar approaches could be replicated at scale by the public authorities to supervise all the bottled and piped water supply operators.