For years Phnom Penh’s urban poor have been encroaching on one of the city’s last remaining reservoirs. But with flooding, especially of the nearby open sewer that collects most of the city’s waste water, expected to worsen, City Hall has vowed to step in
Ominous red numbers mark the shacks squatters have fashioned from bits of wood and corrugated metal in Chamkarmon’s Psar Doeung Thkov village. One’s branded 91, the other 92, next to it, 96. The numbers confuse the residents.
“The authorities came and sprayed this number on my house, but they didn’t tell us anything. Not one word,” said Tol Senghean, a 57-year-old woman with a canine tooth as golden as her hairband. Her house was tagged with the number 91.
Over the years, the community has grown, but the closest street is still a five-minute walk away. Like most of Cambodia’s urban poor, Senghean shares her single-room home with a number of relatives: her husband, two grown daughters, their husbands and children – a total of eight people in less than 20 square metres.
But if it’s up to City Hall, they won’t be here much longer.
Their community is slated for eviction, according to officials, who said that was the reason the houses had been numbered.
“We need to collect the figure of how many families have illegally grabbed the land … And then we will talk about compensation for them to leave,” said City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche, who declined to elaborate or provide a timeframe.
Prum Samkhan, the governor of Chamkarmon district, said that the families would be evicted “as soon as possible”.
Urban NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), which works on land issues in Cambodia, has met with community representatives and estimates that at least 400 families will be affected.
“It will be a very big problem if they do that and evict the community without proper consultation or fair compensation,” STT’s executive director Ee Sarom said.
City Hall refused to comment on possible compensation, but said that the community should have never settled there in the first place.
And that, in fact, their land shouldn’t even be land.
“It [the eviction] is a project of the Phnom Penh municipality to restore the lake … If we don’t restore Boeung Trabek lake, it will cause severe flooding in the near future,” Samkhan said.
It’s hard to see when walking around the densely built shacks, but just behind the homes of Senghean and her neighbors lies the roughly 10-hectare Boeung Trabek.
Ten years ago the lake would have stretched to areas where Senghean’s bulky TV set now stands, and where her granddaughter plays around her feet. Back then about 1.5 million people lived in the city. That number has now reached more than 2 million.
Between 2000 and 2009, more than 100,000 families had to leave their homes to make room for real estate projects, according to STT.
One of them was Senghean and her family. “We bought this [land] seven years ago. When I moved, it was already land, but people here know that it used to be the lake,” she said.
Flooding has become so frequent that some real estate agents have started to tag their properties with “no flooding” promises. Even the rich and powerful aren’t spared: the country’s Information Minister, Khieu Kanharith, recently took to Facebook to lament heavy inundation in front of his residential home.
The filling-in of the lake will make matters worse, according to Uchida Togo, project formulation adviser with Japanese development agency JICA. His organisation has worked closely with the municipality to improve the drainage and sewage system.
They’ve helped build an underground water reservoir to temporarily ease flooding, installed water pumps and donated “sludge suckers” to the city so people won’t have to clean canals with their bare hands.
“But there are a lot of problems that still have to be dealt with,” Uchida said. Most of the pipes, which collect rain and waste water, are remnants of France’s colonial rule. As they were intended for a population of a few hundred thousand only, the rapid growth of the city has stretched them to their limits.
In this precarious situation, the vanishing of Boeung Trabek is particularly worrying, he said.
“This lake is really important. It’s the same as an underground reservoir: it absorbs the impact [of rain]. For that reason, it’s important to keep this lake, but we can see … the northern part is already filled in,” he said.
Up to 20 per cent of Boeung Trabek, JICA estimates, has already disappeared under sand and cement, and if the encroaching continues, nearby areas could flood over a metre high.
What’s worse is that the flooding won’t consist simply of rainwater that doesn’t drain quickly enough. The Trabek canal, which runs adjacent to Boeung Trabek lake, is also expected to overflow more frequently, turning the floodwater into sludge.
The canal is already notorious around town. Commonly, expats refer to it as “s—t canal” or the “Tonle crap”, a play on words in reference to the Tonle Sap, one of Cambodia’s largest rivers.
The open sewer runs through the middle of the city and is impossible to ignore. Underground canals reaching from the Wat Phnom area across the city to Sihanouk Boulevard accumulate the waste of hundreds of thousands of people into this single, pungent, five metre-wide canal.
Nonetheless, people live along it, going about their daily business. Children ride their bikes, housewives dry fish on the streets and men slouch on chairs leaned against the railing, the bubbling, black sludge just centimetres away. On a little bridge over the canal, Keo Heng, 55, sells fried noodles and soft drinks.
She doesn’t like living here.
Her husband is plagued by dizziness and sudden vomiting without any signs of an illness, Heng said.
“It’s from the water. We can’t prove it, but I think it makes us sick,” Heng said, adding that, generally, people here get sick more frequently, but the reasons are rarely diagnosed.
When it rains heavily and rubbish gets clogged under the bridges, residents dive in to pull it out. If they aren’t fast enough, the water rises quickly, until the black, faecal-matter-filled sludge engulfs homes. Residents here said it takes weeks for the sludge to evaporate from their kitchens and bedrooms.
“Human excreta is always dangerous. This is a very unfortunate situation if there’s untreated human waste in a body of water like this, especially if it floods,” Steven Iddings, the World Health Organization’s team leader for environmental health, said.
The areas where people cook, eat and sleep, and where toddlers crawl, have been flooded before, a situation that can cause diseases ranging from severe diarrhoea to hepatitis.
“The hygiene is nearly impossible in a situation like that – that’s the tragedy of the floods that contain human waste,” Iddings said.
City Hall and Chamkarmon governor Prum Samkhan both said that it was time to restore the lake.
“You know well that Phnom Penh is always badly flooded whenever there is heavy rain. So the Phnom Penh municipality plans to restore the lake as soon as possible,” Samkhan said.
But Urban NGO STT compared the situation to the forceful evictions of other poor communities.
“This will be the next Boeung Kak or Borei Keila,” STT’s Sarom said, referring to years-long disputes that have resulted in numerous protests and arrests.
In this case, however, the land dispute isn’t about benefiting the already rich and powerful, but the whole of the city, Togo said.
“It’s a real problem that Phnom Penh has to deal with. But it’s extremely difficult because, legally, they [City Hall] have this land for preservation, but people are encroaching. And that’s the reality.”
Meanwhile, Senghean and her neighbours feel left in the dark. If she gets evicted, she said she won’t put up a fight.
“For the money we could afford to spend, you don’t get a land title,” she said, adding that she paid $6,000, and was hoping that she would receive the same amount as compensation.
But even so, it won’t be enough to buy new accommodation in the city, and with the 20,000 riel the family of eight makes selling eggs each day, renting won’t be an option either.
“If they come, I think we have to go. But I don’t know where,” she said.