He said, “Do or Die.”

When His Excellency Ek Sonn Chan first took over the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority in 1993, he was faced with numerous challenges within the utility, and even had a gun pointed at his head at one point. But now, not only is water in Phnom Penh affordable for 92 per cent of residents, it is also clean.


In 1992, Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, had a high rate of non-revenue water at 72 per cent, either lost in undetected leaks or stolen through illegal connections, and only offered low-quality water to a fifth of the city’s population. Now, in 2017, non-revenue water in the city stands at six per cent – one of the lowest in the world – and the water is of such high quality, it need not be boiled before consumption.

As His Excellency Ek Sonn Chan, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Industry and Handicraft, famously challenged customers a few years ago, “If you get a stomach-ache after drinking the tap water, I will compensate you myself.”

Now considered one of the most remarkable water utilities in the world, the PPWSA has been awarded numerous honours on the international water stage, including the ADB Water Prize in 2004 and the Stockholm Water Award in 2010.

When Mr Chan attended the recent Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) Spotlight to give an insight into Phnom Penh’s water miracle, Water & Wastewater Asia had the privilege of meeting and speaking with him regarding the PPWSA and the challenges he faced in bringing clean water to the residents of Cambodia’s capital.


Humble beginnings
Soft-spoken and mild, though with a certain air of indomitability about him, when Mr Chan first found work in Phnom Penh in 1979, he had already survived the killing fields of the vicious Khmer Rouge regime by hiding his university education. Over the years, he worked his way up, and was first appointed the General Director of the PPWSA on the 11th of September, 1993.

But when he arrived, not only was Mr Chan inexperienced in the water industry, he also found a utility rife with corruption and run by staff that did not even know where half of the pipes lay in the city.

“Personally, I am not a water engineer, and I knew close to nothing about my nation’s water supply,” Mr Chan reflected while speaking at the SIWW Spotlight. “And so I was a little sceptical about the amount of water lost as well. I was asking, ‘Why is it at 72 per cent?’ I first thought that the valve meter was off. Then I thought that perhaps we were incorrectly billing our customers.”

To make matters worse, neither Mr Chan nor any of his employees had any sort of guidance along the way.

“We just taught ourselves, actually,” Mr Chan shared. “We discovered how to solve our problems ourselves, day-to-day, and learning on the way. We ‘spied’ on other countries, learned from them, and made it our own.”

Immediately, Mr Chan buckled down, quickly becoming adept at the issues the utility faced with nothing but sheer grit and will.

“It was a matter of do or die,” he said, flint in his eyes and steel in his tone.

When Mr Chan applied incentive and penalty schemes without exception, rewarding those who worked hard to benefit the utility, and punishing those with bad intentions, long-time employees of the utilities came to resent him, though he never let it bother him.

“To address the challenges of corruption within my power as the head of PPWSA, I chose to be a role model, applying it from the top. I believe that if the boss is clean and free of corruption, educating subordinates and punishing corrupted ones is possible,” Mr Chan commented.

“Our principle is simple: The higher the position you occupy in the company, the better you must behave.”



Challenges and solutions
In 1993, the PPWSA was not turning over a profit due to high electricity costs and low water tarif0fs, the capital city had a distribution network that was a mere 288 kilometres long, and full of leaky pipes and illegal connections that siphoned water from the system, leading to a whopping 72 per cent of non-revenue water. In addition, water was only available for ten hours a day at low pressure.

Moreover, a tangled customer database meant that some customers were either paying the wrong amount, or not even paying for their water. Some employees were even pocketing the money from some water bills.

Mr Chan raised the tariffs and had the original 288-kilometre-long pipeline replaced. Soon after, he followed that up with an additional 2000 kilometres added from 1993 to 2011, with an average of 150 kilometres of pipes laid down for the distribution network every year. By 1999, the PPWSA had made water available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and at good pressure.

More water connections were added to the network, and by 2011 – Mr Chan left the PPWSA in July 2012 – there were 219,498 connections. Presently, there are an estimated 260,000 connections in PPWSA’s water distribution network.

But although Mr Chan brought incentive and penalty schemes for the staff into effect, and castigated those who did not work for the benefit of the water utility, he was still unable to completely stamp out illegal connections and water theft.

“I believe illegal connections and water theft still exist, and even more if you care unable to discipline your staff,” Mr Chan disclosed. “During my time with the PPWSA, I learned well that most of the stolen water can be linked with the staff of the utility.”


Reducing water losses
Although Mr Chan was steadily replacing the old pipes with new ones, water losses still remained as high as 50 per cent.

“That told us rather clearly that leakage was not the only cause of water loss,” Mr Chan said succinctly.

Mr Chan immediately brought his characteristic “Do or Die” attitude to bear once again, enacting several schemes to clean up the water utility.

“Firstly, we trained the leakage detection and repair teams, taught them how to repair leaks properly,” he said.

After that, Mr Chan set about metering all service connections while also updating the customer base.

“So many people were receiving water but no bills, and others still never got a drop of water and received a bill anyway,” he explained.

In 1993, only 3,391 out of 26,881 connections had been metered, and the city was not divided into district metering areas (DMAs).

He promptly began laying more connections, metering them on top of dividing Phnom Penh into 76 DMAs – all while updating the records. Within a year, he had recorded all 76 districts, found that of the 15,000 customers recorded, 12,980 did not even exist though 13,722 unrecorded customers did, and brought the total number of customers to 26,881. By 2001, all 74,945 connections were metered.

But it was when Mr Chan was collecting water bills and laying the meters that his true adamant nature came to the fore.

As renowned for his utter contempt of corruption as he is for ruthlessly pursuing his goals, Mr Chan lets nothing stop him in his pursuit – including those more powerful than he.

In 1995, keeping in line with his belief that change must begin with a role model at the top and faced with customers refusing to cooperate with his plans to meter all water connections, Mr Chan decided to approach a three-star army general, hoping to garner his support in the endeavour. But when he asked if he could install the water meter on the general’s house connection, the general flatly refused.

In response, Mr Chan walked into the general’s home alone with the intention of disconnecting his water supply. Angered, the general held a gun to the back of his head.

Mr Chan broke down and wept, shaken and unable to believe that his fellow countryman was able to point a weapon at him. But his innate iron nature would not allow him to let the issue go.

“I could have been killed. I learned that day that installing water meters may cost a life,” Mr Chan stated. “But I said, ‘I will not surrender. From tomorrow onwards, you will not receive any water.’”

The very next day, he completely closed the valves of the pipe running along the road in front of the general’s house. Left without water for his family and bodyguards, the general tried to visit Mr Chan in his office two days later with some guards in tow in an attempt to strong-arm him into restoring the water supply. But Mr Chan outwitted him, having posted some twenty members of the military police around the PPWSA’s entrance.

Finally, on the third day, Mr Chan allowed the general into his office – alone and without his guards.

“We managed to reach an agreement after a tough round of negotiations,” Mr Chan added. “The general agreed to the installation of the water meter on his connection. We did not make the case public knowledge, but we did tell the public that he was a wonderful customer who allowed the PPWSA to install a water meter on his connection. All our customers quickly followed the general, and our scheme was successful!”

But with the meters, Mr Chan was able to keep track of water flow and pressure around the clock, and he was able to pinpoint and repair any leaks that sprung. In addition, he was also able to fight water theft on every level of the organisation, signing internal service contracts with water loss reduction teams within the utility and disciplining every wayward staff member by subjecting them to an intensive penalty scheme.


The customer base
Perhaps one of the most amazing water facts in Phnom Penh is that all who use the water supplied by the PPWSA pay for it, from the high-income households all the way to the low-income families.

By way of a Social Fund that subsidises service connection fees for low-income families, 92 per cent of residents in Cambodia can have clean, potable water piped straight to their homes.

“We knew that water connection fees were the barrier that kept low-income families away from us,” Mr Chan explained.

“To settle this, in 2000, I set up the Social Fund that offers subsidies at 30, 50, 70, and even up to 100 per cent for service connection fees for the low-income households. We call it the Social Connection Subsidy Scheme.”

But the issue was not with the subsidies and utility profits. Instead, it was the PPWSA’s modernisation and rapid increase of customers.

As Mr Chan pushed the water utility into the digital age, he found himself dealing with problems such as digital security on top of more common issues much like water pressure and customer service.

“We needed to have a good system in place to ensure good customer service, which includes the quality of water supplied, good water pressure at the taps, accurate and timely billings, making payment convenient, and much more,” Mr Chan recalled.

“We could make the water affordable through good investments and technological innovations, but our biggest issue was to find staff passionate enough to put in the effort to deal with our customers harmoniously.”

But that does not mean that Mr Chan goes easy on late payments for water connection fees. In fact, if the customer has not paid after a water bill, reminder, and final warning letter over three and half weeks, water to that particular customer would be stopped, with an additional ten per cent of the connection cost imposed as a penalty fee should the customer choose to reconnect.


Clean water for all
Phnom Penh is a study in contrasts, a developing city famed for its remarkably clean water. Customers of the PPWSA need not even boil their water before they drink it, as the PPWSA treats the water before sending it into the distribution network with the Conventional Treatment System that is regularly found in developing countries.

“We treat our water through the coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, and sand filtration process before finally disinfecting it with chlorine gas and sending it to the distribution network,” Mr Chan revealed.

And though the water smells strongly of chlorine, and visitors in the country are adamant in boiling the water first before consumption, it is clean, clear, and perfectly drinkable.

In fact, Mr Chan has challenged numerous consumers on drinking the unboiled water, and leads by example, drinking the water straight from the tap himself, alongside his family and even young granddaughter.

But the biggest impact he made was arguably with sanitation.

“There was a boy who had spent some of his childhood years always struggling to find water to bathe because there was never enough water. Because of that, he could only afford to take a bath once every three days,” Mr Chan recounted with a smile.

“But with water now accessible to almost all residents in Phnom Penh, his mother now forces him to bathe three times a day!”


The future
With the PPWSA now recognised as a force to be reckoned with in the water industry, Mr Chan is looking to replicate the water utility’s successful model and deploy it throughout Cambodia in both public and private waterworks.

“It does seem very difficult and almost impossible,” Mr Chan said mildly. “But that is my dream, and it will happen someday.”

But that is not the only dream Mr Chan has; as a matter of fact, he is realising one now.

“I have been to many places, speaking to leaders in the water industry about the PPWSA’s turnaround,” Mr Chan articulated. “And many agree that if it can be done in Cambodia, it can be done anywhere in the world. What you just need is management with the 3Fs and 3Hs: Be fair and firm, and have faith. At the same time, you need to use your head and hand, and engage your heart as well.”


All images are credited to PUB Singapore

This article was published in Water & Wastewater Asia’s November/December 2017 issue.