Innovative Eco-solution Helps Clean Cambodia’s Sewage

A female entrepreneur is slowly but surely becoming a potential gamechanger when it comes to waste water matters as she encourages youths to become part of the next generation of sustainability revolutionizers.
A motorist drives near a sewage canal in Phnom Penh's Chamkar Mon district. Picture: Sam
A motorist drives near a sewage canal in Phnom Penh's Chamkar Mon district. Picture: Sam

In Phnom Penh city alone, more than one million cubic meters of untreated waste water is being charged daily. Issues such as population growth, swelling urbanization and industrial development play a major role in increasing water waste and environmental pollution, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology 2016.

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Adding to the problem is a raft of other concerns. These include wastewater from households and businesses often end up flowing into rivers and septic tank systems are not installed in all buildings. Sewage water flows via sewerage systems (Boeng Trabek and Steoung Meanchey) into Boeung Choeung Ek Lake, which receives 80% of the capital’s sewage water along with untreated effluent from 3,000 small- and large-scale industrial enterprises, according to a 2020 report by GIZ.

As waste water is a big concern in Cambodia, especially in Phnom Penh, there is an urgent need for innovative solutions to transform polluted water with high bacterial risk to safe water with low bacteria, which can then be reused to produce zero waste.

Vorn Thary, SuDrain CEO and co-founder, hails from Kratie province. She was educated abroad and returned with big dreams. Her vision was to assist society sustainably by discovering innovative ways to overcome the issue of waste water coming from drains using natural techniques that save the environment and economy.

Vorn Thary, SuDrain CEO and co-founder. Picture: supplied
Vorn Thary, SuDrain CEO and co-founder. Picture: supplied

Thary graduated with a master’s degree on Agro-Industrial and Environment at Institute of Technology of Cambodia and she also holds a master in exchange program on Environmental Engineering at TU Delft in the Netherlands. Thary always looked to expand her technical skill and knowledge to give back to the society in the water sector.

Returning from overseas, Thary worked as a researcher at an international NGO. However, she continued to think of how to create something new to deal with the waste water treatment system in Cambodia. This led her to think of an eco-friendly solution.

After finishing her research in 2018, she enrolled in business competition, SmartSpark cohort #1- ‘Social Welfare’. The startup program, organized by Impact Hub Phnom Penh, introduces the key concepts of social entrepreneurship to people with the ambition to turn their innovative idea into a business that will tackle Cambodia’s biggest challenges.

Thary won $3,000 for her innovative solution to sewage/drainage wastewater treatment for water recycling, in alignment with the sustainable development goal 6, Clean Water & Sanitation. This states that by 2030 Cambodia will improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.

She went on to successfully complete a certificate of the 4th Young Professional Program in WASH, organized by the Center for Sustainable Water funded by Water Aid Australia. Next, she enrolled in a Water and Waste Water Analysis with an international NGO to help local people in rural areas raise awareness of water waste and have access to clean water.

“Following the primary school, when we did the project with them, we have tested the water quality for the school, so we follow UNICEF and pursued our journey to another program called Youth Colab from UNDP. Furthermore, we also joined in the Global Innovative competition and signed a contract with an Australia company as a partnership agreement called Tiger Water Solution that we have joined in one exhibition recently.”

She described about her long journey by joining the social work of NGOs and innovative competition programs, which helped her expand her horizons.

By challenging herself and adapting ideas from the experiences she had through competitions, she developed SuDrain. It uses natural and local coconut fibers that filter sewage and meet regulatory requirements at a much more affordable price than the current alternatives. SMEs can use the technology to lessen their environmental impact. In September 2021, SuDrain secured a huge contract with Khmer Enterprise.

[ Recycling Business Aids Cambodia’s Environment and Economy ]

The 30-year-old continues to work with many NGOs in Cambodia to assist and provide training related to water waste treatment and sustainable hygiene solutions.

In January 2022, SuDrain teamed up with Water Aid Cambodia to run a training workshop on “Safe Common Practices for Sanitation Service Staff” in Battambang province. The aim was to strengthen the capacity of trainees, who work for the sanitation service, to have a better understanding of the common operating principles (SOP), accident prevention and risk prevention from lack of hygiene.

“SuDrain is providing eco-waste water solutions for all. Therefore, our vision is to prolong the life cycle of water and improve the livelihoods of citizens, including help preserving the environment as well as the economics of society,” said Thary.

She believes this social enterprise is significant not only for the environment and people’s health but also the economics. “If the population frequently gets sick due to inappropriate waste water discharge, it affects human health, including the livelihood of everyone, on a daily basis. Therefore, we can say we are an important part in solving this issue.”

Currently, SuDrain provides consulting services, installation for dealing with water waste for crucial sectors, such as agriculture and livestock farming, public and private facilities, local/international NGOs and government sectors.

She explained how she created the eco-waste water solution. “We mostly encounter issues every day that we are not able to solve yet. Population growth, utilization, expansion and industrialization growth are all factors causing the waste water problems. As a result, we provide a service relevant to these issues.”

They provide three main services. 1. Consulting service on waste water treatment, 2. Designing, installing and constructing waste water treatment systems/plants, which take up a small space, are affordable and easy to maintain, 3. Provide monitoring and evaluation water quality testing or analysis of waste water treated that comply with the requirements of the Ministry of Environment before being discharged into a natural source.

“We save every drop of water by recycling [sewage] and using it [cleaned water after using coconut filter] for the purpose for irrigation of crops instead [discharge],” she added. “We are the part of the solution. There are many female entrepreneurs, so if you want to become like them, attempt to achieve it, please don’t let the word say, ‘You are a girl or lady, you cannot do it’. You can do everything you want to do.”

According to the “Female Water Entrepreneurs in Cambodia” report, the barriers and challenges faced by female water entrepreneurs are operational issues, government and regulations, financial issues and limited demand for water services.

Entrepreneurs in particular reported that damage to water infrastructure, lack of favorable government policies and regulations, lack of access to finance and regular incomes and lower demand during the rainy season affected their ability to manage their water supply schemes.

Entrepreneurs reported three key enablers that helped them establish and manage water supply schemes: 1) social enablers, 2) economic enablers and 3) program support. Social enablers included receiving encouragement and practical help from family members and friends, as well as seeing other women succeed in the sector.

These have been researched by “Enterprise in WASH” in a joint research project led by the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF-UTS) at the University of Technology Sydney, which investigates the role of private and social enterprises in the delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for the poor.

At the same time, the Cambodian government also issued a sub-decree on "Management of sewerage and wastewater treatment systems" in December 2017 to improve the management of wastewater and wastewater treatment systems effectively and transparently.

On June 29, 2021, the Cambodian government issued a new sub-decree on "water pollution control". This strictly prohibits the discharge of wastewater from polluted sources into the public sewer system.

It should also be noted that more than 60 types of pollution sources for public or private projects are included in the appendix of the sub-decree on water pollution management in 1999. This includes projects for food processing plants, agro-processing plants, trade centers, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, clinics and clinics, light and heavy industries, wood and paper production, mining, chemicals, textile and power plants.