Doing plastic-bottled water differently? The role of social entrepreneurship in delivering community-managed infrastructures in Cambodia

After decades of conflict in the late 20th century, Cambodia was awash with international aid throughout the 1990s. In their effort to consolidate the collapse of communism at that time, one of the main objectives of international donors was to build up civil society.

International NGOs arrived en masse in pursuit of the funds being channelled there and their need of local implementing partners for projects and programs has in turn given rise to the second highest density of NGOs on earth (Domashneva 2013). However aid has been in decline in recent years and social enterprise is gaining ground as a strategy for both international and local NGOs to strive for financial sustainability while also trying to instigate social change through market-oriented activities (Khieng & Lyne 2019). I have conducted research on social enterprise in the non-profit sector in Cambodia for more than 10 years. Most recently this has brought me into contact with an NGO called Teuk Saat 1001 (Teuk Saat means “clean water” in the Khmer vocabulary) that is helping to deliver purified drinking water to rural villages country-wide, which has led me into post-doctoral research examining this intervention in Eastern Cambodia.

Problems with water distribution in Cambodia and the Teuk Saat 1001 solution

World Health Organisation and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program data shows that 30% of the rural Cambodian population still rely for their drinking water on unimproved water sources that offer no reliable protection against contamination or worse still on surface water taken directly from lakes, ponds and rivers. While 72% of the urban population have access to piped water supplies, this applies to only 8.3% in rural places.[i] Tube-well and borehole development projects have helped many rural communities to access groundwater in the past, but in the year 2000 levels of arsenic contamination above the Cambodian standard of 50 μg/Litre – which in turn is five times higher than WHO standards (Andersson Sköld 2010) – were found in low lying areas in Cambodia close to the Mekong Delta, on account of sediments originating from the Himalayan mountains (Berg et al. 2007; Fendorf, Michael & van Geen 2010). This presents a significant portion of the rural population with a choice between the risks presented by chemical contaminants in groundwater on one hand and microbiological pathogens in surface water on the other.

Inside a water refill station

Inside a water refill station

Teuk Saat 1001 (TS1001) are helping to address the rural drinking water issue through a social enterprise franchise model that sets up water refill kiosks in localities where water sources are unsuitable for drinking. The kiosk takes in surface water using a mechanical pump, or takes in ground water if it is available and suitable through a borehole.

Water is put through a preliminary treatment process involving pre-filtration, percolation, further sand filtration and activated carbon if needed in order to improve the colour and odour, before moving to 4 further filters that reduce pollutants to one part per million and any remaining bacteria is killed with Ultra Violet rays. The water output conforms to the World Health Organisation standards and is tested every month at a regional Teuk Saat ‘platform’ laboratory for biological contaminants including coliform, E.coli and enterococcus faecalis along with chemical contaminants.

The treated water is packaged in 20 Litre PET plastic bottles. A brand has been developed – namely “O-we” water – which is the franchise name that every water kiosk is known by to its customers. Each kiosk is operated by a locally appointed O-we “water entrepreneur” who employs a minimum of two assistants to help with water treatment, cleaning and refilling bottles and distribution directly to customers houses from a motorised water cart.

Outside the water refill station

Outside the water refill station

O-we water delivery

O-we water delivery

Bottled water

In 2017 WHO and UNICEF established that bottled water is an ‘improved source’ of water, as long as households also have access to other (less costly) improved sources for cooking, cleaning and personal hygiene (UNICEF & WHO 2017, p. 37). While bottled water was an ‘unimproved source’ beforehand due to concerns with the cost per unit, it is now a legitimate means by which lower income country governments can strive to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 6.1 for “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.” But doubts about equity remain and have lately given rise to critical literature. By adopting political ecology as an entry point Michelle Kooy & Carolin T. Walter (2019) show how bottled drinking water consumption in poor communities reflects uneven choices that result from historic interactions between social relations, water sources and water management practices that give affluent communities privileges. This unevenness is sidelined when policy makers frame bottled water as a “consumer choice” rather than a “necessary supply” for the poor. Based upon my fieldwork in Cambodia and also on the basis of the WHO-UNICEF JMP data showing the urban/rural disparities in the country, I agree that bottled drinking water looks less like a choice among consumers than their essential supply of drinking water when other options are limited. One issue is the water source, another is the practicality of drinking water sources in accordance with people’s day to day activities.

Joshua Greene (2018) also illustrates that bottled water has become an expedient way for policymakers to hit specific targets with a bare minimum outlay of state resources. This is certainly corroborated by my interviews with representatives of water and sanitation programs at the Cambodian Ministry of Rural Development and also UNICEF in Cambodia who speak of constrained resources, the role of the private sector and the need to cooperate with organisations like TS1001. Other literature takes an altogether much more pessimistic view of bottled water and the commodification of water resources, claiming that it amounts to nothing less than a “dereliction of duty” by states that hands the jurisdiction of water governance to multinational companies who are expropriating superior water resources on an unprecedented scale (Pacheco-Vega 2019, p. 9). Taking scarcity as a key aspect of water insecurity, Pacheco-Vega (2019, p. 2) asks: “How is an industry that makes money from packaging a scarce resource… compatible with our intentions to create the conditions for a global norm of the human right to water…?”


I question if an industry making money out of bottled water is always antithetical to people’s ‘right to water’ by considering the role of social innovation in generating pro-social business models that are targeted at community development. According to Agnès Hubert (2010) social innovation instigates novel forms of hybrid governance (therefore why not water governance?) through which public officials, citizens, non-profits and business can collaborate, creating new platforms for bespoke services and social change Or put another way, social innovations might creatively engineer new hybrid economies that are synthesised with communities’ assets and which incorporate ethical economic considerations related to consumption, the necessity of labour, distributions of surplus and also the distributive processes that help produce, replenish and sustain aspects of the commons (Gibson-Graham & Roelvink 2013). As an academic, my objective is to add analysis of the process dimension of social innovation in relation to bottled water, as opposed to focusing only on the output per se. I am looking at the way that social relations are impacted by objects of attention – both the kiosk and the water bottle. I consider how social innovations are set up, the interpretation of water equity, and how messages related to the TS1001 product and alternatives including sand filtration and rainwater harvesting become persuasive.

I find mixed results in two Communes in eastern Cambodia. Successes differ greatly because of entanglements between the kiosk’s biography, geography, politics and to some degree the dispositions of the entrepreneurs. In one instance, the level of community engagement and sense of ownership of and affinity with the kiosk enterprise is truly remarkable. This has had a strong bearing on the resilience of the enterprise even after piped supply arrived two years ago. The means by which wage fixing is deliberated without interference by TS1001 also signifies an ethical disposition that allows kiosk entrepreneurs and assistants to forge their own relations with necessity and surplus (Gibson-Graham 2006). But this ethical disposition resides in tension with some quite rigid claims over resource flows TS1001’s part that can become a site of contestation and everyday resistance: the writing of James Scott (1985) can be brought to bear on the introductions of these new technologies.

20L plastic bottles are deemed to be hygienic and functional with a push-down tap that can be easily operated by children

20L plastic bottles are deemed to be hygienic and functional with a push-down tap that can be easily operated by children

The plastic bottle is deemed by most concumers to be more hygienic than other options and a child-friendly “push down tap” also brings them further reassurances about safety. But perhaps of the greatest importance of all to them, is that the bottle is in itself has become new type of water infrastructure that is more agile, portable and convenient than the traditional infrastructures such as the tube-well of even piped supply because further treatment by boiling is pervceived as a necessity. The bottle renders access to water equitable in their view, irrespective of the cost per unit and I agree with complementary research on bottled water and sustainable development (Walter, Kooy & Prabaharyaka 2017) that water equity cannot be divorced from water’s quality and convenience.

However, an issue for further consideration is the mounting presence of redundant/broken 20L plastic water bottles in the villages that, with no where else to go, are becoming plant pots and buckets. A manufacturer who provides the plastic bottles to TS1001 would like to start recycling them but informs me that the logistics in Cambodia are problematic– waste pickers (adjai) do not collect 20L bottles and the waste shops that the adjai sell to do not accept them. TS1001 have held competitions for customers to come up with new uses – one customer has designed a fan. The more successful kiosk entrepreneur has a sideline in selling end of use 20L bottles, offering ‘8 for the price of 5’ discounts.

Living differently with 20L plastic bottles

Living differently with 20L plastic bottles

With nowhere else to go to in their afterlife, it looks like the variability and creativity of inorganic plastic matter (Bennett 2010, p. 7) has taken arrangement of its own making within the landscape. Villager’s daily encounters with 20L plastic bottles in their houses, gardens and fields arises from their reluctance (and also TS1001’s reluctance it seems) to transfer these bottles into the category of waste raises questions, not only about how people “come to live differently with things” (Hawkins 2006, p. 76) but also how they come to live differently with water too. An elder male villager is concerned that turning bottles into plant pots cheapens the water itself – or at least that villagers will look at the drinking water in different way – but then laughs, conceding that plant pots might be the better use after all if the adjai will not take them.

Isaac Lyne



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[i] The WHO/UNICEF JMP database can be accessed at