Karaoke Videos Teach Safe Water Techniques

Drinking water in Cambodia carries many risks. Many of the nation's wells and rivers contain bacteria, parasites and pesticides. However, there are ways to avoid unsafe water. Villagers are learning about safe drinking water through karaoke videos that combine stories of love with information about the dangers of arsenic and bacteria in some hand-dug wells.

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In Cambodia, drinking water carries many risks. Many of the nation's wells and rivers contain bacteria, parasites, pesticides and arsenic. There are ways to avoid unsafe water, but it's been hard to get Cambodians to take precautions, so one group is trying to spread the message through karaoke videos. NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.

JON HAMILTON: This video shows a beautiful Cambodian woman in a white blouse, filling a pail with water from a gushing well spout. She turns to her husband, a ruggedly handsome man, and starts to sing.

(Soundbite of Cambodian karaoke public information video)

Unidentified Vocalist: (Khmer sung)

HAMILTON: Rough translation: You're a great husband for giving me this well. I gave you this well because I love you, he answers. The man behind this video is an American named Mickey Sampson, who says the plot is about to take a dramatic twist. The husband is telling his wife they need to do one more thing before drinking their water.

Dr. MICKEY SAMPSON (Country Director, Resource Development International): He goes, there's something else you should know about. It's called arsenic, and it doesn't have color, and it doesn't have odor, and it can be found in our wells. And we need to spend a dollar to have a test run to see if it is safe or not.

HAMILTON: Arsenic can weaken the immune system, cause cancer, and disfigure hands and feet, so contaminated wells can't be used for drinking. And arsenic is just one threat to water. Sampson says his group has also made karaoke videos dealing with bacteria and hygiene. Sampson moved to Cambodia with his family more than a decade ago to teach chemistry, but his plans changed.

Dr. SAMPSON: There was a small village near where we were living called Dopang Raang(ph), and I heard about the number of kids that were dying from diarrhea. And I just - I couldn't even fathom it. And so that's why we began tackling the most, you know, prominent problem, which is bacterial contamination of water.

HAMILTON: From untreated sewerage. These days, Sampson works for Resource Development International, a nonprofit whose projects include making ceramic water filters. Those filters remove most bacteria and parasites, but not arsenic. And ironically, arsenic poisoning has become more common in Cambodia because of recent efforts to provide clean water. Sampson says well-intentioned groups have put in hundreds of wells that turned out to have dangerously high levels of arsenic.

Dr. SAMPSON: It's really sad to go into a village and realize that someone wanted to help them and put wells in there, but then you see people who need amputations, and people who are extremely sick from this water source.

HAMILTON: Sampson realized that Cambodians needed to know more about how to protect themselves, but there were obstacles. Many people can't read, and poor villagers tend to accept waterborne diseases as part of life. Then one day, Sampson heard the babysitter singing a familiar tune.

Dr. SAMPSON: (Singing) I love you. You...

Dr. SAMPSON: She was singing the "Barney" song. And, you know, she speaks no English. And it just hit me that education through media, through song, was the way that we needed to go. And that was the piece of the puzzle that was missing, not technology.

HAMILTON: In Cambodia, new songs usually arrive in the form of karaoke videos.

Dr. SAMPSON: And so what we started doing is putting some of these messages in karaoke form, and going out with little video trucks and karaoke trucks, and letting villagers sing about water and begin to realize that this is something that they need to understand and they need to take action on.

HAMILTON: Which brings us back to our video. As the story unfolds, the happy couple get their well water tested and find out it does contain arsenic.

(Soundbite of Cambodian karaoke public information video)

Unidentified Vocalist: (Khmer sung)

HAMILTON: So they paint the well spout bright red to let everyone know this water is not for drinking. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Cambodian karaoke public information video)

Unidentified Vocalist: (Khmer sung)

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