Phnom Penh: Before and After Rain
I and my family have been living together in Phnom Penh since 1980, after I returned from Damdek district, Siem Reap in March 1980, to be re-united with my whole family. During the Khmer Rouge regime, April 1975-79 and one year afterwards, I was separated from my parents and family, suffering alone during these dark years in Takeo, Battambang and Siem Reap province.
I am writing this short article to share my humble reflection concerning the city development in the last thirty years. Phnom Penh was a ghost city during the Khmer Rouge regime and sparely populated in the early eighties. Most of the cities buildings and infrastructures were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and it were simply neglected due to lack of money under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, 1979-1989. We were equally poor and the streets of Phnom Penh were filled in mainly by bicycles, cyclos, horse-carts, few motors bikes and very few old or Soviet made cars. No traffic lights were needed.
With the opening up of its economy in the late eighties and the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, the city has undergone dramatic change. Land price was going up, new development was under way. Improvement in term of infrastructure: paved roads, electricity, water supply, etc. could be observed. With the end of economic embargo by the West and the influx of UNTAC money, 1991-93, the city has experienced new wave of change. Land price was rapidly increasing, but not causing yet crucial problem for the society. Land grabbing was then unknown. Political instability and fierce fighting among politicians from different warring fractions were still on the agenda. However, the gap between the newly rich and the poor mass started to emerge.
The fastest development begun in 2004 and 2005 when the “power plays came to an end” and PM Hun Sen has overhand over all his political opponents. The private sector seems to catch up the momentum and the construction started to boom. The land price became sky rocketing and the “anarchic development” has begun (till the world economic crisis 2008-2009). There is no master plan for the city or it has, but nobody cares. Everybody can build what he/she wants, where he/she wants. The remaining lakes were filled in, one by one, by business and political elites for own benefits. They become super rich, overnight. Land grabbing is high on the agenda. Due to better income, new middle class emerges. Traffic is becoming chaotic, day by day. Solid waste and waste water management is in a disaster. Sewage system, though undergone a lot of constructions and improvement, is still a big problem for the city and its people. JICA has stepped in to help the Municipality in many sewage canals improvement projects; phase 1, phase 2 and now phase 3.
It is not to blame the government or the municipality alone, but the people need to bear responsibility as well. Mr. Vann Molyvann, great Architect and City Planner in the sixties, is desperate to see “uncontrolled development” as it is now.
He was critical and was prompt removed from his post as Head of the Apsara Authority. His comment, feedback and recommendation on Phnom Penh’s city planning was bluntly rejected by former governor: “we are now in 2006, and not in the 60th” (sic!). The results of bad planning are more than obvious today: chaotic buildings, chaotic traffic, flooded streets even after small rains, narrow and deadlock streets in many areas, sewage problem, streets need to be repaired permanently and the city’s beauty is in question. Some public parks have been restored, city’s roads have been paved, trees were planted; but it is currently not enough for its inhabitants.
When asked by a journalist few years ago in Siem Reap about anarchic development and its consequences, PM Hun Sen replied in his broken English: “better uncontrolled development, than uncontrolled destroy (destruction)”. Though it is somehow true, no wonder, why Phnom Penh or Siem Reap or other cities will be under water; only even after small rains. I talk to my friends (as a joke) in many occasions and wonder, what would happen if the streets in front of the newly built Villa of the Prime Minister under water like in other places?
We, ordinary people, need to actively participate to make our lives in this capital as pleasant as possible, for all of us…! Do not just wait order from the top, i.e. just clean in front of your own house or fix the small street’s whole in your living area or secure clean waterway to sewage canals or put the garbage in the bins etc. We all can do that and it costs almost nothing, No?