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Water quality risks of ‘improved’ water sources: evidence from Cambodia

Water quality risks of ‘improved’ water sources: evidence from Cambodia

Authors: A. Shaheed, J. Orgill, C. Ratana, M. A. Montgomery, M. A. Jeuland, J. Brown


The objective of this study was to investigate the quality of on-plot piped water and rainwater at the point of consumption in an area with rapidly expanding coverage of ‘improved’ water sources.


Cross-sectional study of 914 peri-urban households in Kandal Province, Cambodia, between July–August 2011. We collected data from all households on water management, drinking water quality and factors potentially related to post-collection water contamination. Drinking water samples were taken directly from a subsample of household taps (n = 143), stored tap water (n = 124), other stored water (n = 92) and treated stored water (n = 79) for basic water quality analysis for Escherichia coli and other parameters.


Household drinking water management was complex, with different sources used at any given time and across seasons. Rainwater was the most commonly used drinking water source. Households mixed different water sources in storage containers, including ‘improved’ with ‘unimproved’ sources. Piped water from taps deteriorated during storage (P < 0.0005), from 520 cfu/100 ml (coefficient of variation, CV: 5.7) E. coli to 1100 cfu/100 ml (CV: 3.4). Stored non-piped water (primarily rainwater) had a mean E. coli count of 1500 cfu/100 ml (CV: 4.1), not significantly different from stored piped water (P = 0.20). Microbial contamination of stored water was significantly associated with observed storage and handling practices, including dipping hands or receptacles in water (P < 0.005), and having an uncovered storage container (P = 0.052).


The microbial quality of ‘improved’ water sources in our study area was not maintained at the point of consumption, possibly due to a combination of mixing water sources at the household level, unsafe storage and handling practices, and inadequately treated piped-to-plot water. These results have implications for refining international targets for safe drinking water access as well as the assumptions underlying global burden of disease estimates, which posit that ‘improved’ sources pose minimal risks of diarrhoeal diseases.