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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Long road to the promised land

Long road to the promised land

A new shantytown begins to sprout from the bare dirt of Anlong Kngann, outside Phnom Penh.


HEY say misery loves company, and there is no shortage of either at Anlong Kngann,

the 154 hectare relocation site outside Phnom Penh for the victims of November's

suspicious slum fires.

Getting there is neither easy nor quick: a 45 minute drive along a deteriorating

selection of roads ends on a dusty farm track that is the site's main road.

For around 16,000 people this flat, low-lying area - perfect for rice fields - is

now home. The blue plastic sheeting, corrugated iron walls and wooden supports resemble

a large refugee camp.

Many of the people had not been allocated land at the time of the Post's visit; they

are living along the network of farm roads bisecting the rice fields. Some have no

food or shelter, despite two weeks of waiting. Facilities are non-existent: there

are no health clinics or schools, sewerage or drainage. There are no trees for shade

and there is no protection from the elements.

Kleang Phen arrived here December 4 with her husband and three children. They are

from Bassac commune and lost everything in the blaze November 26. She has not been

given land, but has been told a plot will be available once the rice has been harvested.

Until then her family is living in a wood-framed shack with corrugated iron walls

and a blue plastic sheet roof. The roofing arrived December 12 along with a 30 kilogram

bag of rice. The days are hot, she says, the nights cold and her children are unhappy.

They need blankets.

"My children complain that they are so cold and I feel so sorry for them,"

she says. "In the daytime it is very hot, and now my lips have become so dry

they have started to crack. We are short of drinking water - the water here

is the color of milk, but we have to take a shower with that dirty water. I buy fresh

water every day, but that costs 300 riel for ten liters."

"There is no firewood either for cooking, and we have nowhere to defecate except

in the farmers' rice fields. They get very angry at that and curse us," she

says wearily. "I have no money to make a living here."

The lack of firewood means that the people cannot boil the muddy water provided by

the municipality, forcing them to buy drinking water. The risks should not be underestimated:

when the water at Anlong Gong relocation site was tested by the Pasteur Institute,

it was found to be unfit for human consumption.

Yet Phen is luckier than some. The Post spoke with Chhin Tong, who was crouched by

the side of the road with her two young daughters and a small bundle of belongings.

She came here twelve days ago from Bassac commune.

"We have nothing," she says. "I have no tarpaulin, no rice, not even

100 riel for my children. I will have to borrow some rice to feed them. My daughter

is seven years old and has had to drop back one grade at school."

A mother trudges the long dusty road back to her patch of land she calls home at the site.

Her husband is old, she says, "more than sixty and can no longer work".

He is helping another family build a shelter that they will all share until something

better comes along. At Bassac Tong sold sugarcane. With no money to buy supplies,

she has no chance to earn a living here.

To encourage people to stay at Anlong Kngann, the municipality has designed a house:

the architect's plan shows brick walls, a tiled roof and a tree out the front. It

is thoroughly Mediterranean, says one agency worker, and thoroughly unsuitable. The

suspicion is that it is an exercise in politics rather than housing.

For a start the house lacks stilts, which are essential on a flood plain. Also it

costs $3,000 which puts it well out of the reach of the likes of Tong. The municipality

cannot afford to fund it and the aid agencies are not willing to do so: one reason

is that they know maintenance costs on such housing can worsen poverty.

Ty Ra, a 42-year-old widow, is looking at the dust-covered architectural plan pinned

to the site's noticeboard. She arrived December 1 and is still waiting for her plot.

She likes the look of the house, but is under no illusions.

"We would consider ourselves very lucky to live in such a house," she says.

"But I have no hope that we will get one."

The man next to her heard a rumor the municipality will loan half the money, which

they will repay over five years.

Nou Lonh, a motodup driver, chips in:"It is a good plan, but we might have no

money to repay the loan," he says. "I earn only 8,000 riel a day, which

is just enough for my children and my wife. If the government wants us to repay the

loan at say $5 a month, we could manage that, but we are not sure how much they want

us to repay. I heard $20 a month."

That assumes anyone will still be around if and when the houses start going up. Without

work, there is no incentive to stay, as 37-year-old Sim Channa knows. A victim of

the second fire at Chhbar Ampeo, Channa has brought two of her five children to the

site; the rest are staying with relatives in the city.

"They said we will be given land after the rice harvest, but for now I have

nowhere to stay," she complains. "Before the fire I was a fruit vendor

and my husband was a construction worker. Now he cannot go to work in Phnom Penh

- he earns only 7,000 riel for a day's work, and with the return journey costing

4,000 riel he cannot afford the transport costs."

"I don't know how to solve this problem about the money. We are eking out a

living by not using much water. I haven't taken a bath in two days. I want to start

a business here but I have no money to do so. I have had to spend it all since the


While Channa waits for her promised land, others have received their plots of 7 by

15 meters. Among these is mother of six, 52-year-old Minh Kim Chhen. She used to

own a grocery store at Bassac commune but lost most of her stock and possessions

in the blaze.

"I am not happy about coming here," she says, tears welling in her eyes.

"It is miserable. Everything is difficult, even such basics as water and electricity.

My husband is very sick but I had no money to treat him so I sent him to my relatives

in Kratie. I don't know what has happened to him."

"I cannot make anything like the money I was earning in Phnom Penh. There I

would take in 200-300,000 riel a day from my store. Here I get less than 10,000 riel."

"And the water is so very, very dirty. The water I get from the pipe, provided

by the municipality, is muddy. At night I use candle-light because I cannot afford

to pay 1,000 riel for the electricity [set up by a private generator] between 6pm

and 11pm. We are all of us sleeping on mats on the ground. It is so miserable."

Water likely unfit for human consumption on tap at Anlong Kngann.

And that from one in the supposedly enviable position of having land. It is likely

that many will drift back to the city, as happened with more than half the people

moved to a site called Chungruk after a slum fire in May.

Yet there are some winners. Although the plots at Anlong Kngann are currently worth

very little, they will increase in value once aid agencies finish installing access

roads, drainage and infrastructure. In May 'entrepreneurs' started buying land at

Chungruk as soon as people were moved there; the price of a plot went from a few

hundred dollars to several thousand.

The same is already happening at Anlong Kngann. That is another reason donors and

aid agencies are reluctant to spend too much money. It's not quite what they had

in mind when they formulated their poverty reduction strategies.



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