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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Residents live in fear of building collapse

Residents live in fear of building collapse

THE poor of Phnom Penh often live in appalling conditions. A report prepared for

the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) describes

the Borei Kammakar building, home to around 70 families, as a death-trap, and

'at extreme risk of collapse'.

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...........

Several hundred people live in the

complex's three parallel buildings behind the Bayon Hospital near Monivong

Bridge. From the main road the white-washed facade of the first 1960s-era

building looks in reasonable shape; entering the complex reveals its alarming

condition.

Crumbling support pillars taper down to a rotting concrete

walkway, exposing the steel frames. Large cracks run along most walls, and

ceilings in some apartments have buckled. The plaster that once covered the

walls has cracked and fallen away, revealing rotting brickwork, while the

concrete roof above one walkway has collapsed entirely. Experts acknowledge that

the entire edifice is living on borrowed time.

Despite its appalling

state, all the apartments are occupied. Some residents have lived here since

1979, and most of the rest came here in the early 1980s. All are aware of the

problems, but with little money they have no alternative but to wait until

someone else sorts it out.

Hang Yim, a 60-year-old mother of seven,

settled here in 1979 just two weeks after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge

regime. Yim says hers was the first family to move in. She recalls that in those

days, the building was in good condition.

"In 1979 it looked good. Now it

is cracking and I am afraid it will collapse. [However] I cannot leave because

there is nowhere else to go," she told the Post.

Years of neglect resulted in the collapse of the walkway roof.

Policeman Chea Sok Nov

says his family arrived in 1983. He says that its condition is worse than ever.

Like the other residents, Nov fears it could collapse at any time, but on a

salary of less than $20 a month, he cannot afford to buy a plot of land and

build a new house.

"We continue to live patiently in this old building,"

he says. "Sometimes when there is heavy rain or a storm, I just close my eyes

and ears. The government should pay more attention to us and help us find a

better place."

The reason for its appalling state, though, is due in

large part to the residents themselves. Most current owners and the municipality

blame those who lived here in the 1980s for damaging the building. Until 1985,

when the government banned the cottage industry, many residents produced ice in

antiquated fridges; salt water used in that process seeped through the structure

and damaged the building.

The residents know this too well. Sin Sokhan,

55, moved here in 1979. She used to make ice and says that she used around 50

kilograms of salt every month. She reckons she was one of the few to prevent the

leaking of salt water.

"The municipality sent us letter advising us to

leave temporarily, but where should we go?" she asked. "My family has no money

to build a new house."

She told the Post of a rumor that an NGO wanted to

negotiate with the community to replace the building with a new condominium, but

an agreement was not reached.

"Although some people wanted to sell their

rooms, others were not convinced that they would be allowed to return after

completion of the new building."

The CRC report states that 'urgent

attention be given to providing training in disaster mitigation, especially in

relation to the dire status of the Borei Kammakar building'. It describes the

building as 'a disaster waiting to happen' during the next wet season. Despite

the report's sensible recommendation, the deputy governor of Phnom Penh

Municipality, Chev Kim Hong, says no emergency plan has been drawn

up.

Instead, the municipality has held discussions with other departments

such as the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Urbanization and Land

Management on how to help the residents. They are still waiting.

"The

Phnom Penh Municipality authorized an NGO to negotiate with the inhabitants

asking them to leave temporarily to allow them to renovate the buildings," he

says. "The renovation fees should be paid by the individual owners, but they

have no money."

Kim Hong says residents' would rather sell their

apartments outright than move out for renovation work in the hope that they

would be allowed back afterwards. He adds that the building has had no work done

to it since it was built in the 1960s.

Village chief Kuy Oeurn told the

Post that the cost of buying the building and its one hectare plot of land would

be around $2 million. He sees two solutions to the problem: one, sell the

building outright to a developer; two, pull it down and rebuild condominiums in

its place. He says that although most residents would like to sell their

apartments for between $6,000 and $10,000, that is too high for an

investor.

"Now people seemed to change their mind - they want NGOs to

rebuild by giving them a long-term repayment loan," he says, adding that the

United Nations Center for Human Settlements (UNCHS) had said it was keen to

provide low-interest loans to remedy the situation.

Oeurn says that the

UNCHS experts had told him the building would collapse within one and a half

years. The organization proposed tearing down the existing building and erecting

a new block that would shelter 172 families of around 900 people, which would

include those families living in tin sheds around the base of the crumbling

buildings.

Peter Swan, a senior technical advisor to UNCHS, says his

organization has been in discussion with the municipality on the fate of the

building for several years. He explains that the low interest loans would come

through the Urban Poverty Reduction Fund, which would offer small loans to the

residents - around $400 per family. Although this is insufficient for

redevelopment, he is confident that the residents will add to this when they

feel they have security of tenure, an essential condition of donor

funding.

Swan attributes the slow progress on the fate of the building to

the "difficult balancing act" the municipality needs to make when juggling the

priorities of the city's poorest 20 percent with the needs for the inhabitants

as a whole.

"We are trying to negotiate in the next month or two to get

an agreement on this," he says. "The general principle we are promoting is to

protect the livelihoods and well-being of the poor, and to re-house them at

locations as close as possible to their existing locations. It is not always an

option, but wherever it is, we feel it should be considered."

"The Borei

Kammakar building is a real and present danger for those living in it," says

Swan, "but the municipality is conscious of that and is keen, along with us, to

do something about it."

 

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