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International Women’s Day: AWA’s female led delegation to Cambodia

Earlier this year, the Australian Water Association (AWA) led a delegation to Cambodia as part of the Knowledge Exchange Partnership program. The goal of the program is to establish partnerships between Cambodian and Australian wastewater professionals that enhance the Cambodian Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT) capacity to improve wastewater service delivery.

Facilitated by the AWA, the program is funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the Partnerships for Infrastructure initiative, which is focused on contributing to quality infrastructure development that drives inclusive growth in the South East Asian region.

To mark International Women’s Day (8 March), Source caught up with two members of the delegation – Yarra Valley Water’s Dr Bronwyn Herron, and AWA NSW Branch President and NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Dr Nanda Altavilla – about the challenges facing the Cambodian water sector and the insights shared.


Discussing the issues particular to Cambodia’s urban water and wastewater provision, Altavilla said the rapid rate of development in Phnom Penh is a key issue requiring insight and support.

“The rate of urban development is far outstripping their ability to service. This is not unusual, even in Australia; land planning tends to work ahead of water planning,” she said.

There is a lot of good will and money being put into infrastructure. But the next step is about how to maintain the infrastructure and how to regulate the operation of the infrastructure.”

Herron said the Cambodian water sector is embarking on a challenging water journey, which is why knowledge sharing and support from the international community is crucial.

“The Cambodian government needs everything that goes with the water service provision journey – including the policy and regulation development, the skills, the resources and the equipment. Partnerships can support them along the way,” she said.

“One of the key drivers of this knowledge sharing is to understand where we can help and not overlap with other agencies. A lot of it is about understanding where we could best fit and help on such a challenging journey in such a short timeframe.”

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Sharing knowledge

Present at the previous two-day knowledge exchange workshop held in December 2022, Herron said the knowledge shared with the MPWT covered a broad range of topics, but the most recent exchange focused on wastewater governance, servicing and pricing.

“In the more recent knowledge sharing trip, we discussed the topic of community engagement in setting our water and wastewater provision prices across Australia,” she said.

“It’s only in recent years that Cambodia’s drinking water has been charged, but there is more of a challenge with wastewater. The community may not understand why they would be charged for the service.

“They are only just starting on this infrastructure rollout journey.”

“In the past 10 years, there has been a big uplift in how we engage our communities here in Australia, partly because of changes in our regulatory environment, and this insight was very welcome by the Ministry.”

Altavilla said the knowledge she shared with the MPWT focused on governance and regulation structures in Australia, in particular NSW.

“Cambodia has a centralised system of government, Australia doesn’t – our water service regulations are state-based. We spoke about the different levels of government we have in Australia and then went into more depth with our system in NSW,” she said.

“Sharing this information sparked a conversation about how we have different regulators for different things, and how we manage that. I wanted to show that in Australia, things don’t always run smoothly. There are always going to be regulatory tensions between different agencies.”

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Two-way learning

When it comes to the insights gained through the sharing of knowledge and experience, Herron said every visit to Cambodia is a reminder of the particularly unique challenges faced by their society.

“Everytime I go, I learn more about the context and the challenges they are facing. It’s a reminder to keep our assumptions about what other people need in check,” she said.

“We often go into these programs with a preconception about what their aspirations or goals are, but what we think the issue is might not be the key driver.

“It’s important to take the time to understand what it is the Cambodian government is trying to achieve, outside of our own expectations. When you build trust, you gain a lot more valuable insight about the challenges that are being faced.”

Altavilla agrees, suggesting true partnership is about listening, first and foremost.

“When we spoke to the Ministry, they told us they wanted growth and prosperity. Protection of the environment and of people is something that can come if you can ensure the economic growth is done right,” she said.

“We should really be trying to meet their aspirations, not the other way around. Listening to aspirations is important as it allows us to step in as a trusted partner. We are there to help.”

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Women in water

While the primary aim of the knowledge sharing workshop and site visits was to support the MPWT with Australian insight, GRET Sanitation Institutional Development Specialist Ratana Kheang said the all-woman delegation was a catalyst for reflection around gender equity in the water sector.

“I am proud to be a part of improving water and sanitation services and management for this society, as well as other countries. No one can say women can’t do that because we can,” Kheang said.

“The improvement and development of our water sector cannot reach everyone if representation isn’t there. Solutions must not be based on a dream, but on collective needs and challenges to make sure we design the best strategies and actions.

“Increasing women's participation in the water and sanitation sector is also important to me because it can contribute to their economic empowerment, leading to poverty reduction and improved livelihoods.”

Herron said meeting with Cambodian Government officials as an all-woman delegation was quite powerful: “Historically, it would have been flipped the other way”.

“One of the key benefits was that the more junior Cambodian women present during the knowledge sharing workshop could see that women are entirely capable of holding senior positions within the field,” she said.

“It was a message that, internationally, there are women performing these senior roles, and there are support networks that can be tapped into, particularly for younger women who feel that their voices aren't being heard.”

Altavilla said that, regardless of whether in Australia or Cambodia, the collegiality of women in water is notable, and a fantastic foundation on which to grow more opportunities.

“Seeing is believing. If women don't see other women, they can’t imagine themselves doing it too,” she said.

International Womens Day

Next week on Tuesday 12 March, the AWA along with the Water Services Association of Australia, are hosting a webinar for International Women's Day. 

We will hear from a panel of women in the water industry, reflecting on their experience and discussing opportunities for inspiring inclusion at both an individual and organisational level. 

With the theme "Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate Progress" inspired by the United Nations on the Status of Women. Our panel will delve into the crucial topic of enhancing inclusion for women in the water industry and share their own experiences on how to invest in women and accelerate progress towards equality.

Let's come together to ensure women and girls have the tools to thrive, lead, and make an impact in the water sector. Don't miss this opportunity to be part of the change!

View more information and register now for the webinar