Safe drinking water keeps Cambodian kids in school

Children walking to school, Kampong Cham, Cambodia.
Children walking to school, Kampong Cham, Cambodia.
Karen Murphy

If you build it, he will come. In the case of Cambodian schools it is more like: if you provide safe drinking water, kids will go to school.

When schools provided treated water in containers, the rate of absence for students dropped. That is what research published in the health journal PLOS One last month finds.

What makes the study notable is that it shows that the water itself, not necessarily the health gains, are what get kids come to school.

The association between safe drinking water and school attendance is strongest during the dry season. Why students in Cambodia are not going to school during the rainy season is not entirely known.

Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, the study’s lead other and his co-authors surmise that it is due to the farming season.

“There were also strong seasonal effects as absenteeism in several of the schools increased dramatically during the wet season, irrespective of water delivery. We were informed that this increase in absenteeism during the early wet season was partly because children were frequently kept off school to help in the fields,” they write in the study.

What is almost entirely certain is that providing safe drinking water gets kids to go to school during the dry season. They know this because of a delivery problem at one of the schools.

The design of the program was for every class to have one 20 liter bottle of safe drinking water each day. School children then had the opportunity to take water as they wanted, each day. Roughly each student had a half liter of water available each day, costing less than half of a penny per day for each student ($1.40/yr).

The school where deliveries of water were inconsistent saw student attendance react to whether or not the water was at the school. The researchers determined that there was a 2.9% reduction in absenteeism for every container of water delivered at the school. Students were more likely to go to school because of the safe drinking water, not necessarily because of how the water may make them healthier.

The water provided may also have mattered. The 1001F water distributed at the schools was filtered and disinfected by UV light. The use of chlorine is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to treat water, but some people complain that the water does not taste good. The researchers posit that the choice of water may have contributed as an additional incentive for kids to attend school.

“Any scheme to increase drinking water provision in the classroom that does not ensure that that water is safe to drink is likely to put the children at risk of waterborne disease. However, providing safe water in the school environment does not necessarily mean children will drink it,” conclude the authors.

“Indeed taste appears to be a major determinant affecting whether or not people continue to use safe drinking water sources.”

Like most other research, the study concludes that more research is needed. There is a recommendation for a randomized control trial to get a better sense of what is happening and how much credit safe drinking water deserves for keeping kids in school.

Share.

About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.