Flooding in Phnom Penh city and the surrounding areas has been featured in the news almost every day. This is alarming for the city and its uncertain future.
That some officials in the Phnom Penh authority have laid the blame for such flooding on rainy season is ridiculous. However, this is, to an extent, true because there is a great loss of natural reservoirs that were used to retain rain and storm water. Before they used this excuse, they should have asked how often such occurrence had happened in the past.
Based on its history of development, Phnom Penh was built on flood-prone areas. Expansion of the city was achieved by filling lakes, building dams and ring roads to make ways for development as well as to protect from flooding. Why did previous regimes implement such a city expansion strategy? This is of course associated with population growth and economic growth in the city. However, can this strategy be a framework for future city development? To put it simply, the current solution to city expansion is totally a mistake due to different magnitudes of scale and scope of development as well as population and economic growth pressures.
Any solution to urban problems must be more innovative and responsive. Experts, planning professionals and the like have long been warning that filling lakes shrinks the volume of water reservoirs, thereby making the city regions susceptible to flooding.
However, little attention has been paid to such advice; developments have taken place through filling lakes, arguing for the "landfill-based development" history but against advice from experts and planning professionals.
The current flooding in the Phnom Penh city regions, such as in villages in the Russei Keo district, has been a good answer to the current trend of urban development. The current solution to flooding by constructing costly pumping stations to pump the water out is unsustainable as it involves costs to operate and cover maintenance, not to mention the pollution resulted from their operation. Would it not be more favorable to preserve the lakes as natural water catchments than to fill them and pump the water out every year when flooding?
Natural disasters such as flooding and storms have increasingly become a worrying concern in Cambodia. Flooding in Phnom Penh city regions should be seen as a lesson to be incorporated into the city development framework that seeks to make our city more resilient to such natural disasters.
Urban sustainability cannot be achieved unless our city is planned and developed with its associated problems in mind.
PhD candidate in urban and regional planning, University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA