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Supporting the next generation of Cambodian water professionals

The Australian Water Association, in partnership with the Cambodian Water Supply Association and with support from the Australian Government, is facilitating a Water Utility Improvement Program between South East Water and three Cambodian Private Water Operators.

In July 2019, members of the South East Water team visited their Cambodian counterparts to understand the challenges they faced. In August, it was the Cambodian water operators’ turn to visit Australia, before the South East Water team undertook another trip to Cambodia in November. 

South East Water Water Quality Scientist Josh Quinn joined that second trip. Here, he reflects on the journey and the lessons learned.

Having met the Cambodian delegation a few months prior during their visit to South East Water, I knew how open-hearted the owners and operators were. But what I didn’t expect was to be so genuinely accepted into their families and their homes. What I thought was going to be a project based on knowledge sharing and learning turned into so much more. The relationships that developed as a result of discussing operational issues over a home-cooked meal with the families that live and work on their treatment plant was immensely grounding. 

With the commitment to install two flow meters and a silt curtain, the team and I felt the pressure and, more notably, the heat. The weather was starting to transition to the dry season and we quickly realised how important it was to get our projects done as early as possible. Not only was the afternoon heat and humidity crippling, but the generosity of our hosts when it came to lunch and keeping us fed meant that by 2 pm we could barely string a sentence together. If it weren’t for the mandatory afternoon siestas we wouldn’t have survived the day. 

There were so many factors that were outside of our control that could have major impacts on the success of the partnership, not to mention how much more difficult it would be to demonstrate the desired effects of the new technologies and methods to our Cambodian partners. 

But the challenging nature of our goals turned out to be what brought us and our Cambodian partners closer together. The partnership that eventuated by completing our projects as a team led to open discussions about their ambitions as service providers. Suddenly my colleagues and I could engage on a much more personal level and offer advice and information specific to their goals.

Australian and Cambodian water professionals. Australian and Cambodian water professionals.

When our Cambodians twins visited us earlier in the year, we did our best to deliver and share practices and procedures that would be of most benefit to them. In hindsight, this method of learning must have been extremely polarising and confronting for them. By being afforded the opportunity to work side-by-side on their own networks and install new technologies together, I saw a level of understanding that I didn’t see during their visit.

A relationship closely resembling that of a teacher and student changed rapidly to one of collaborative learning, and the result of this shift in terms of mutual understanding and development was incredible. 

Developing these relationships and gaining an understanding of the challenges faced by the water industry in Cambodia was invaluable. Following our site visits I was tasked with delivering a presentation on water quality and the application of its principles during the Cambodian Water Conference. Having experienced the obstacles inhibiting the supply of safe and clean drinking water personally, I was much better placed to convey how methodologies such as ‘Chlorine Contact Time’ could be applied to the treatment process. 

Most satisfying of all, however, was that my audience was dominated by students and young professionals, all keen to learn as much as they could to help build Cambodia’s water sector into one as robust as ours in Australia.

After catching just a glimpse of the Cambodian youth who are about to begin their journey as young professionals in the water sector, it’s clear that the future of Cambodia and its ongoing prosperity and development is guaranteed. 

The springboard that will catapult Cambodia to the top tier of South-East Asian nations will be its water sector. It will be the emerging Cambodian young water professionals now entering the workforce, who will deliver this crucial component of national infrastructure.

If I could offer advice to anyone reading this who is about to undertake a similar partnership program, it would be to set yourself and your partner utility a project to complete together. The combined problem solving, planning and communication required, although overwhelming and difficult at times, will build a relationship that will be incredibly successful and rewarding for all involved.

To learn more about the Australian Water Association's international programs, click here.