Celebrating World Toilet Day: How Trailblazer Foundation is providing clean water and sanitation to rural Cambodia
According to the UN, eight in ten people in Cambodia defecate out in the open rather than using a toilet. One in three people drinks water from a non – improved drinking source implying they don’t segregate human waste from human contact. Despite making certain progress, Cambodia lacks water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities and has the highest rate of open defecation in the region.
We spoke to Ms Christi Coats, Co-founder and Executive Director, Trailblazer Foundation and learned about their nonprofit and the programs they run to ensure WASH facilities in rural parts of Cambodia.
What motivated you to start working for sanitation in Cambodia?
Christi – We volunteered in Cambodia and realised the needs of the people there, that became the impetus to start the Trailblazer Foundation. We started our projects in Cambodia in 2005 and saw the poverty. The United Nations highlights the importance of toilets in supporting better nutrition and improved health. The lack of access to clean drinking water, sanitation and good hygiene practices are the underlying causes of poor nutrition. Although the country has come a long way, the conditions remain poor in the rural areas. Less than one in three Cambodians have access to toilets and handwashing facilities in their home. But these facilities and schools are limited. We work to provide better water sources and sanitation and educate people about the importance of clean water and good hygiene.
What motivated you to work for this cause?
Christi – The lack of water and sanitation is a major cause of health across Cambodia for families, especially children, in rural families. They do not have access to basic needs such as clean water and toilets. We had good jobs, but we wanted to do something more rewarding. We wanted to help people and leave an impact. It does not take a lot of money to help, and it impacts thousands of people every year. I cannot imagine doing anything different.
Can you tell us about the programs you run in Cambodia?
Christi – We have four programs: health, food security, education, and economic development. In our health program we build and distribute biosand water filters. Our well drilling team gives people year-round access to water. We also build latrines to ensure that people have a safe, hygienic, and dignified place to use the toilet. Our second program is food security, where we are teaching farmers about better practices and techniques to feed their families and increase the growth of produce out of their home gardens. We also have a few larger-scale agriculture projects in that area, which flows into our economic development program. We have farmer community groups and start our fourth chicken raising farm. And then we have our education program where we have built ten government primary school buildings and three libraries. We also distribute bicycles and school uniforms to help students can stay in school.
What were the cultural challenges you faced and how did you overcome these?
Christi – First, we established a relationship with the government and worked with them in their development process. We are told each year by the government what the villagers need or want, and sign agreements to do that work based on funding. But I think the big key thing is to be there on the ground and to be able to communicate in the local language. We were already working on the ground and the next step was to hire local staff. We have a wonderful staff, which are all indigenous Cambodian staff.
As far as the pandemic is concerned, we were very fortunate in that it didn’t impact our work too much. We are already social-distancing ourselves for the greater part by going to individual family homes to install a filter or drill a well. There were some government lockdowns to prevent the spread, which would prevent us from going into certain areas. We also needed to minimise the number of participants in our agriculture training courses. In addition to that, our staff have been vaccinated and are doing all they can to remain safe and protected.
What are the few things that you wish people knew about sanitation and hygiene?
Christi – One challenge is that a lot of the people we’re dealing with are illiterate, even in their own language. So in our training, we use a lot of pictures. They don’t understand the connection between the environment, what they do or don’t do, and its impact on their health. They haven’t had that kind of education in school. Educating them about things like when they’ve gone toilet in the bush, and then don’t wash their hands with soap when they return, that’s why they get sick. It’s difficult because they don’t have access to toilets or clean water.
How can young people help your nonprofit?
Christi – Never underestimate the impact you can make. You can physically come over, when the country is open again after Covid, and help with our health program by volunteering, or you can help with raising funds on this side of the world.
Celebrate World Toilet Day with Trailblazer Foundation
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