For a quarter of a century, Luy Thy, 43, has sat next to Lu Tuk S'Oi, the notorious
open sewer that runs through Phnom Penh. The brightly striped cloth umbrella that
shades her tiny telephone booth stands out, incongruously cheerful, from the noxious
black water that flows slowly past her perch.
Lu Tuk S'Oi - "bad-smelling sewer water" - the notorious open sewer that runs through Phnom Penh. Health experts say the all-too-common stench wafting from blocked drains and open sewers like Lu Tuk S'Oi indicates a major health risk.
"I don't even notice the smell any more," said Luy Thy. "When you
first come, you notice the stink; when you have been here for a long time, it becomes
But the stench of Lu Tuk S'Oi - meaning literally "bad-smelling sewer water"
- hits those unaccustomed to it with a pungent punch in the nose. And according to
health experts, the all-too-common stench wafting from blocked drains and open sewers
like Lu Tuk S'Oi, is an odorous indication of a major health risk.
"The World Health Organization is very concerned about the possible contamination
of the urban water supply by sewage," said Dr Nasir Hassan, WHO Environmental
Health Adviser. "Cambodia is flood-prone and during floods even human feces
could escape from the sewage system and get into the water supply."
Phnom Penh's sewer network is old and decrepit. The main drainage routes were constructed
in the French colonial era and the secondary pipes built in the 1960s, said Ukai
Hikoyuki, Deputy Resident Representative for the Japan International Cooperation
Agency (JICA). He said like much of the capital's infrastructure, the sewer system
fell into disrepair during 30 years of civil strife.
"From the 1960s onwards Cambodia entered a period of conflict, so during this
time no maintenance was carried out on the sewers," he said. "The capacity
becomes very low: sand, soil and rubbish all block the pipes, and in some areas the
pipes are broken."
Phnom Penh has 120 km of old sewers of which only 35 percent - or 40 km - have been
upgraded said Nouv Saroeun, Director of Phnom Penh Municipality's Drain Water Unit.
Despite the addition of 78 km of new sewers since 1979 the system is struggling.
"We still have a major problem," Saroeun said.
Phnom Penh has a combined sewage system - in which storm water and sewage are carried
in the same pipes. The disadvantage, according to the United States Environmental
Protection Agency's information on combined sewer systems, is that "during periods
of heavy rainfall, the capacity of a combined sewer system may be exceeded [causing]
untreated combined sewage and storm water to overflow from manholes on to surface
But Saroeun believes there are solutions to the city's manifest drainage problems.
"I have suggested to the government that we should enlarge the sewer pipes as
they carry both rainwater and sewage so fill up quickly and flood," he said.
"Also, some streets are at a lower level than others - that is why they flood.
Sealing the roads properly with correct drainage will help ensure it doesn't flood
without having to change the road's level."
The government lacks the resources to maintain, let alone renovate, the sewerage
system. But international donors are aware of the pressing public health risks of
poor sanitation and are eager to help, Hikoyuki said.
"The Cambodian government has put high priority on this and we agree: this is
a serious problem," he said. "Sewers are a hygiene risk, especially near
markets where people are buying fresh meat and vegetables - it is very dangerous
to have poor sewers."
Japanese Grant Aid is funding an overhaul of Phnom Penh's sewers - stage two should
be complete by 2010.
But at Lu Tuk S'oi another long term resident of the area, Seang Phany, 48, has grown
tried of repeatedly asking the government to cover the open sewer that flows past
"A cover would keep the smell in and would prevent people throwing garbage into
the water," she said. "It would also reduce crime in the area - the river
is a problem for crime as we know that people use the black water to dispose of dead
The financial costs and physical dangers of living next to an open sewer weigh heavily
on her mind.
"If people come to the area then all they do is complain about the smell and
want to get away from it - so how can the people who live here earn a living?"
she said. "It is dangerous too - two days ago a child fell into the river. Thankfully,
this time people saw and managed to get him out in time."
But Saroeun said that it would take between three to five years for the government
to cover all of Phnom Penh's open sewers - if the government decides this is an appropriate
action to take.