We joined the team at Wetlands Work!, a social enterprise in Phnom Penh, to tour one of their projects and hear about their history and process. The company was founded around 2008 by Dr. Taber Hand, a UW alumni, and all-around interesting person. Hand has been in Cambodia since the early 1990s after the Vietnamese put the country back under Cambodian leadership.

In 2011 (I believe), they received a Gates Foundation grant which allowed them to pursue the Handy Pod design. I was very excited to learn more about the design process behind the Handy Pod, since I added it as an intervention in my Winter 2016 design studio. They are in the process of doing more sanitation marketing to have more communities adopt and steward the Handy Pods.

As Wetlands Work! has grown, they have also done some interesting commercial projects, and are interested in expanding to other developing countries. They are currently seeking a qualified intern who has connections and language skills in a developing country that could use their services!

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Ben’s new buddy

Taber, his project manager Solyka, and two visiting French scholars took us to a flood-prone community about 15 km from Phnom Penh. The conditions there were much worse than in Pongro Senchey, it was pretty tough to see and internalize. The community had been forcibly displaced from near the Monivong Bridge in two waves, 2008 and 2012. They are now on a rural plot of land whose title is disputed by the neighbor — an ominous-seeming individual that Taber called ‘The Pastor’. The Pastor claims title to the land although it is not holding up in court. He was given title by a Christian NGO to a school that is next to the community, but refuses to open it; the children instead bike about 3km down a potholed dirt road (that is, of course, flooded some of the year) to a different school.

The Pastor sometimes helps the community, but shows preference for certain households over others, and once even installed a toilet into a vacant house across the street from a household he ‘didn’t like’, even though nobody lived there anymore.

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The canal usually has some water in it, but this is a particularly hot and dry year

Taber noted that the last few years in Cambodia have been sequentially hotter and drier; this poses issues for the current sanitation technologies, because they require pour-flush, or at least a little bit of water to function. Without any water to spare — and this community is in especially dire straits — they resort back to open field defecation. When the floods do eventually come, this poses tremendous health risks.

Many of the homes here are made out of wood and sheet metal — whereas in Pongro Senchey, where tenure and infrastructure is more secure, residents have been able to construct their homes out of brick and concrete. Because of the flooding, the residents have to spend two to three months out of the year in an emergency encampment until the water subsides.

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Outbuilding demonstrating flood and rain events

The highest line on this outbuilding represents the 10-year flood mark, while the lower lines represent the more regular annual rain events. This community was displaced to this flood plain with no infrastructure or flood management, meanwhile the land they used to inhabit is valued at $2,000 per square meter.

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Wetlands Work! latrine out of use
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Taber (pointing, far left) and Solyka (far right in the red shirt) show us around the community
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Another Wetlands Work! latrine

The simple three-tier system allows for anaerobic digestion in the first chamber, nutrient uptake and microbial digestion from plant roots in the second chamber, and aerobic digestion and reuse in the third chamber. The latrine pictured above is out of use because of a lack of water for flushing.

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A dry year

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This little guy was following us around from the start. The blond spots on his head are discoloration from malnutrition — something we noticed with a lot of children in this community, and a few children in Pongro Senchey.

The children in this village were in bad shape. Medical care appears to be very inaccessible as many had open wounds, lice, and other lesions. In Pongro Senchey a volunteer doctor comes once a month, but in communities like this where land title is disputed and there is an imposing personality like The Pastor, outside help is less likely to make it to those in need.

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