The electrical safety in Cambodia is often an overlooked issue that continues to threaten many lives, even though Cambodia has achieved substantial socio-economic development in the last two decades, thanks to high economic growth and poverty reduction. Many people are still uneducated about the danger of electricity, such as shock, burns, fire and even explosion. The problem is worsened by the outdated electricity infrastructure, particularly the messy cables that connect from house to house in Phnom Penh city. Cambodia’s electricity facilities and infrastructure are severely damaged, if not destroyed, by wars. While acknowledging the efforts by the authority to restore and build the electricity infrastructure, the fact is that tangled messes of wire remains a significant urban challenge.
These open-air tangled overhead wires is a common practice in many developing countries where Cambodia is no exception because it is easy to install, requires less maintenance and is often affordable to the public. It is also convenient as the infrastructure is already in place. It is, however, prone to damage, dangerous if in poor condition, and hard to regulate and fix effectively. This kind of faulty electricity infrastructure, particularly the birds-nest wires or tangled overhead wires, has taken many lives in Cambodia over the years. The authority must find ways to tackle this issue in a timely and responsive manner rather than to be complacent about this vital urban issue.
THE LACK OF PROPER URBAN PLANNING
Many Cambodians are familiar with the concept of “think before drawing”, but this concept tends to go in a reverse manner vis-à-vis infrastructure development in Phnom Penh city. For instance, the authority has built roads before installing drainage systems, which is costly and troublesome. The installment of the electrical grid with messy wires is another example that follows a similar challenge because it is not properly planned and designed to be people-friendly with human safety as the priority. The objective is to ensure that the people can access to the electricity even at times it is at the expense of human lives through fire, electrocution or shock. If the authority continues to work this way, it is not only Phnom Penh city, but other major towns and cities that will suffer from this lack-of-proper-design infrastructure in the coming years unless best international practices regarding the electricity infrastructure are identified, studied, applied and implemented. Otherwise, the birds-nest wiring will continue to pose danger to the people and degrade the beauty of neighborhoods or the city at large, reflecting a poor urban planning and the lack of measures to improve the city, as there is little innovation and effort to solve this issue but to bypass this urban issue.
A SIMILAR EXPERIENCE IN NEIGHBORING COUNTRIES
Cambodia is not alone because Vietnam and Thailand also experience a similar issue of tangled messes of wires in the city, even though they have a relatively reliable power supply compared to Cambodia. In many cities, such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, the messy overhead cables are a predominant issue, which continues to surprise and unsettle foreigners. Particularly, foreigners are curious how the Vietnamese technicians fix the power cables when they break down. Likewise, in Thailand, this issue is popularized by Bill Gates – Microsoft founder and philanthropist – who took a photo of a mass of messy cabling and referred to them as dangerous electricity wires. He argues that if people cannot get reliable electricity, it is often hard to make the most of your life. He even names a photo album on Facebook as “Living with Energy Poverty”. This refers to the inequality of energy consumption, such as electricity usage in developing countries, because he is convinced that the frequent blackouts and power cuts often do not serve the people who need it most. This was immediately rejected by many Thai citizens who said that most of the cables are not electrical wires, but low-voltage phone and internet cables installed by companies. Despite the different perspectives, the core of the issue remains unchanged, which is the messy wires that can be threatening to human lives. It looks as if it is impossible to organize and fix them in troubled times.
POOR MAINTENANCE AND THE ELECTRICTY INEQUALITY IN PHNOM PENH CITY
The problem of faulty electricity infrastructure, namely the birds-nest cables, can be lessened by proper and regular maintenance. However, this is not generally the case in Phnom Penh. Some affluent areas tend to benefit from good maintenance of electricity infrastructure, but many underdeveloped neighborhoods continue to suffer from various electrical accidents caused by the poor condition and unreliable infrastructure. On top of that, some areas tend to get an upper hand in electricity supply because the electricity distribution is often not equal. This reflects the gap in the electricity or energy consumption by various levels of the population. Some areas experience more blackouts more often and for longer than others. That is not solely due to the inequality issue, but the insufficient supply of electricity in Cambodia depends on the imports of electricity from the neighboring countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.
THE LACK OF COMPETENT TECHNICIANS
Capable electric engineers and technicians are still lacking in Cambodia. Most Cambodian graduates major in social sciences rather than technical and science-based degrees. There are few higher education institutions, such as Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC), and a limited number of vocational training centers that provide electrical engineering courses or train people to be competent technicians. Cambodia is in real need of competent electrical technicians and engineers to help solve the issue of faulty electricity infrastructure and organize the electric power lines in a more effective and efficient manner.
UNDERGROUND WIRING IS AN INTERNATIONAL BEST PRACTICE
One of the most common ways to deal with tangled electrical wires is through underground cables. In developed countries, power lines are usually laid underground to ensure safety. This can help prevent the collapse of concrete poles carrying too much weight. Another advantage of underground wiring is that it allows the authority to effectively organize and plan the development of power infrastructure. On top of being people-friendly, underground cables can also help improve the beauty of the city and reflect the neat and effective work by the authority. The Metropolitan Electricity Authority (MEA) in Thailand, for example, has gradually started to implement this measure by laying the power lines underground since 2011. This signifies that it is not too late to tackle this issue if the authority is committed to finding solutions as international best practices are available across the world. It is a matter of putting the right policies into real implementation.