Infrastructure after Rapid Urbanization: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Infrastructure after Rapid Urbanization: Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Chen & Solon, 2004)

water and sanitation Cambodia

Located in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a country under siege by both Mother Nature and the modern world. Framed within the broader context of unmanageable urbanization in developing countries worldwide, the Cambodian population is immigrating to urban centers en masse in search of opportunity after nearly a decade of national civil unrest in the 1970s. The combination of residual social and political instability, an outdated national infrastructural framework, and the unpreparedness of institutions to handle the sheer volume of migrants leaves the bulk of the population to fend for themselves. This is often accomplished through the hasty construction of “temporary” shelters on any available ground, leading to the exponential increase in “unchecked and unplanned informal settlements” (Chen, 2004). In the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh, 374,826 Cambodians are crowded into 569 of these informal settlements, where “41,957 of these households are subject to flooding, 46,688 households have water supply problems, and 24,264 households are without a toilet” (Chen, 2004). Further complicating the situation is the capital’s location at the convergence of four rivers amid the larger region’s affinity for damaging weather patterns.

In terms of the importance of water and sanitation to the overall national condition, this paper says it all when it comments that “in developing countries, water infrastructure problems perpetuate extreme poverty and create harsh living environments. A safe, adequate and accessible water supply, combined with the safe disposal of human waste and drainage, is critical to the sustainability of developing cities and the health of their inhabitants” (Chen, 2004). Within the informal settlements of contemporary Cambodia, progress toward gaining these basic necessities is complicated by a number of factors. The communities generally obtain water through either expensive private truck import of questionable quality or arduous open-air transport from overused public pumps by the women and children of the population – which, sadly enough, are both preferable options to the third course of simply using standing fresh water. Furthermore, the region’s rainy season heightens its already problematic groundwater levels, which erode the unpaved thruways of informal settlements to the point of inaccessibility for emergency vehicles and even, on occasion, the residents themselves. In particular, the very poor are often located in flood plains with no sewage or drainage systems, forcing them to relocate whenever it rains and often causing black water to mix into the grey water that is regularly used for washing and cleaning. Industrial waste can be found in the settlements’ rivers and lakes, as well, due to their proximity to urban centers. Meanwhile, the extreme housing density forces children to play in wastewater locations and allows for the rampant spread of communicable diseases that such standing water promotes.

In the face of such obvious need, most of the current infrastructural improvement efforts are merely “band-aids” due to their approaches to the situation. Outside organizations, which wield the most funding and technology, often require quick repayment from already impoverished areas, and follow a “Western-based” philosophy of redevelopment that rarely fits their third-world targets. This implies industrialized approaches driven by monetary rather than sustainable concerns, where technologies are often employed that are too advanced to be understood or maintained locally with little consideration for the community’s current conditions or involvement in their own restructuring.

What is shown to be effective for areas like Cambodia is quite the opposite of this norm: infrastructural planning with an emphasis on locality and simplicity – supported by what this paper deems “intermediate technology”. The treadle water pump introduced to the rural Prey Veng Province of Cambodia serves as an example of this industrial “stepping stone” approach. The pump, developed in Bangladesh, lifts groundwater up to seven meters through a simplistic suction system. Jointly fostered by the NGO Christian Outreach and World Concern, the scheme’s success was largely ascribed to its local funding and operational similarities to the Cambodian method for pounding rice, with which the water-providing women and children were already familiar. What’s more, due to the benefits reaped from its implementation, further advances could be considered.

On a larger scale, the Orangi Pilot Project of Karachi, Pakistan was cited as a success story and the basis for Phnom Penh’s own Ros Reay Project. This informal settlement within Cambodia’s capital was established in 1979 on illegitimate energy and water sources with a total disregard for sewage planning. Approximately a decade later, the settlement’s residents and the Urban Poor Development Fund (UPDF) NGO followed the Orangi example in using local materials and labor, community-led mapping and drainage planning, and a community contractor to provide elementary sewage provisions to a 72-house “seed”. From there, the redevelopment spread throughout the surrounding community and beyond through the experience gained by volunteers from other settlements.

The Cambodian study highlights a few main concluding considerations for our own work from the perspective of a nation whose history and current condition are fairly analogous to that of South Africa:

  • All of the provided examples included land tenure – a lack of permanency may prevent some communities from investing in infrastructure.
  • Partnership between community and state is essential before improvement efforts can begin. Friction between them could lead to the state uprooting developing projects or the community misusing or casting off government provisions. Therefore, one desirable consequence of our work would be the establishment of a better working relationship between the Monwabisi Park community and their local government.
  • Technologies should be introduced as a “building process” – start simple and be patient. In that spirit, the sanitation systems we consider must be simple enough to be easily understood, maintained, and repaired by the community, possibly with the intervention of nearby professionals. Further advances in system complexity can be made upon the success of these early implementations.
  • Multifaceted approaches to the situation with careful consideration of the culture and existing framework have a better chance for success. Thus the emphasis on “integration” and teamwork between the WPI Projects should be fully exploited to address Monwabisi Park’s sanitation situation from all angles, as should partnerships with the government, the Shaster Foundation, the University of Cape Town, sanitation system vendors, and especially the community itself. The results of this collaboration should first and foremost take into account the lifestyles and current practices of the project’s ultimate patrons – the Park residents.