Sampling with Pigs Voicing Disapproval. Notice the School Across the Road.
This project started almost a year ago by a “chance encounter” at a Khmer wedding. On the way out of the reception the groom wanted us to meet his parents. ‘My dad works on water in Kampong Thom province’. I said, “What! You never told me your dad works on water”. And in an instant we connected and learned about a need his dad had to test wells in his district for arsenic. No one had helped on this…….yet. That was April last year. So at the end of February, a group of Pannasastra University (PUC) students and former students I had taught from PUC in 2009 and 2013 were off to test 44 wells to hunt for an invisible, tasteless, odorless silent killer…….arsenic. Mam Vuth had gained much experience testing wells and building treatment systems for arsenic since we had worked together at PUC in 2010 at Prey Veng province. Now he works like the field commander. Our collaborator in this venture was the groom at the wedding who is the director for an NGO that helps villages in Kampong Thom. We had our team trained on procedures but as always things change once you get out and see the real landscape.
Vuth Coordinating PUC Student Volunteers
It’s like detective work using your experience from the past and knowledge of where arsenic might be holed up in some deep pocket of water and sediment that was loaded with some arsenic many years ago during some monsoon flooding that inundated parts of Cambodia. Arsenic is a big problem along the Lower Mekong Delta and especially along the Tonle Basaac, and Mekong Rivers near Kandall and Prey Veng provinces.
Vuth Explaining the New Sampling Strategy
But we were far away from this hotspot in Kampong Thom. But not far from the Tonle Sap Lake and the Steung Sen River. So we asked a lot of questions of the local village chiefs and district officers that had made original sampling plan for selected villages in Kampong Ker and Sroryov Communes. We had some knowledge that our culprit might not be hiding just anywhere in Steung Sen district. Where were villages on the list of 18 proposed that were closer to the Steung Sen? Closest to the rivers? So after much discussion and explanation, a strategic plan was devised for this first attempt to find wells where the odorless, tasteless, invisible culprit might be hiding. And the hunt began. We only got 8 wells tested the first afternoon but it gave us some critical data.
PUC Students Sampling for Arsenic
The culprit was hiding in three of the eight wells at levels 2.5 to 6.8 times higher than the WHO health guideline of 10 ppb. Yes arsenic had been hiding undetected in some pockets.
PUC Students Searching for the Silent Killer
One of these wells was being used every day by 4 families and over 200 school children every day. The word was out now and the hunt continued the next day. We encountered and amazing array of well types with pigs and water buffalo scrutinizing our every move and voicing strong disapproval! Oink!
Heavy Traffic Crossing
Return of the Duck Herders
When it was all done the next day, the Ministry of Water and Meteorology now had data on 10 wells that warranted concern and notification and a plan on how to protect the health of the people and livestock using them. PUC students gained an immense amount of personal satisfaction that they had made a significant contribution to helping Cambodian people in these communes. Best of all, was the awareness. People had information to act on now so our odorless , tasteless, invisible culprit was no longer able to skulk around the groundwater undetected. Oink! Oink!