Pointing the Finger in the Mirror

Posted on: February 4, 2008 Posted by: Kaia Smith Comments: 0

Pointing the Finger in the Mirror

RDI’s primary focus has been increasing access to clean water for rural Cambodians. Each year, easily preventable water-born diseases kill thousands of Cambodians. To tackle this problem, RDI has implemented many projects, including water filtration, arsenic testing, rainwater harvesting, and water pumps for rural wells. Finding practical and sustainable solutions to these problems is challenging, and Sampson recognizes that it’s not feasible to just give things away because people must feel a sense of ownership, empowerment, and agency in the betterment of their lives and health. Says Sampson, “We’ve got to take good business principles with good development principles, and meld those two so that we can really impact people.”

One of the most extensive projects at RDI is the production and marketing of inexpensive ceramic filtration systems, which are manufactured by a team of Cambodians at the RDI facility outside Phnom Penh. The simple ceramic filters, which look like large clay flowerpots, can remove 99.5% of all germs and bacteria from rainwater and surface water. The filters, placed inside a large plastic water storage container, provide a dependable point-of-use solution for Cambodians who do not have access to clean water. At $8, the simple systems are affordable and, in areas where many families purchase charcoal to boil drinking water, they pay for themselves in less than three months. If maintained correctly, the filters can be used indefinitely.

RDIC has also designed water pumps for use at rural wells. These simple rope pumps, made of inexpensive and easily acquired materials, are extremely efficient. RDI currently sells the pumps on a rent-to-own basis. For $240, RDI will dig a well and install the pump and cement apron. A community or group of families can collectively purchase the pump by paying $10/month for two years. Additionally, monthly visits to the communities give RDI ample opportunities to monitor the pumps and teach lessons about health and environment. By the end of 2008, this project will be completely self-funding–the revenue from monthly payments will equal the cost of installing new pumps. Development is now reaching a level where RDI does not need to ask donors for money for these sustainable programs, because Cambodians are the integral part of the development process and are helping other Cambodians.

One of the most striking things about RDI is their continual effort to improve their projects and processes. For example, the water filter program presently uses the waste cuttings from rubber tree plantations to fire the ceramic filter kilns. However, RDI wants to stop using wood completely, and is currently designing machines to produce compressed rice husk logs to use as fuel instead. Rice husks, essentially a waste product in Cambodia, are transformed into a valuable resource.

Sampson notes that many development projects fail because organizations become donor-driven and lose sight of their goals. This unfortunately can lead to organizations focusing on what they have accomplished, rather than the impact of those efforts. For example, there are a number of organizations in Cambodia investing millions of dollars in wells across the country. However, by Sampson’s estimates, “30% of those wells will be unsafe for human consumption or are undesirable” because those same organizations do not test the wells to make sure they are safe.

To tackle this critical issue, RDI developed a program to test the safety of wells in Cambodia. Beginning in Kandal province, they extensively mapped the water quality by testing over 2500 wells. Yet some development organizations, who install wells at a cost of $2,000, are unwilling to pay for the $25 tests simply because they do not know what to do about the problems that may arise. Unfortunately, by ignoring the problem and charging ahead with their number-driven goals, these well-meaning organizations are actually making matters worse, and in some cases, killing Cambodians. RDI hopes to continue mapping other provinces as well and makes all of their data public by posting the information on the Internet. By doing so, other organizations become legally accountable for placing wells in unsafe areas.

Sampson says, “We want be the small little ant that bites and really hurts so the big people have to do something about it. And that’s what we want. We’re about people, and I think that’s the thing that oftentimes gets lost in development. This is people we are talking about.”

Sampson is quick to point out that while RDI does not have the financial resources of some of the larger development organizations, he also knows those same organizations lack creativity and are slow to change. It is his hope that by implementing sustainable and resourceful projects that empower Cambodians, RDI will serve as a model for other development organizations to follow. With the help of his talented team, a wealth of ingenious ideas, and a commitment to the people of Cambodia, Sampson is truly making change.

For more information about RDI and their on-going projects, please visit www.rdic.org.

written by Michael Woodard