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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Six months on, floods replace fires

Six months on, floods replace fires

Wading through water up to her knees, 62-year-old widow My Lang says she spent

the previous night moving her belongings to the ceiling of the half-finished hut

she shares with her five children and two grandchildren.

These flooded conditions are typical of many parts of the Anlong Kngann site.

Lang is one of

an estimated 15,000 victims of November's slum fires now living at the Anlong

Kngann relocation site outside the capital.

"My house is full of water.

We built it ourselves and my relatives paid for the palm leaves for the roof,"

says Lyng. "I only recently got a wooden floor but before that we were sleeping

on the ground. It was chaos.

"I can't make enough money to buy food. My

daughter sells cakes and makes 4,000 riel profit per day for the whole family.

If I could go back to the Bassac commune I would."

Lang echoes the

complaints of thousands. It is now six months since two huge fires, that were

widely believed to have been deliberately lit, ravaged Phnom Penh's Bassac and

Chhbar Ampoe squatter communes within 36 hours. Around 16,500 people were left


The municipality insisted the victims were immediately moved to

two relocation sites outside the city. However, both Anlong Gong and Anlong

Kngann are prone to flooding, and the current heavy rains are causing severe


With no proper sewerage, garbage collection or clean water

services at either site, disease and malnutrition among the thousands of

residents are common. NGOs say many people have died, although getting accurate

figures is impossible.

In addition to the severe health problems, the

situation is fast becoming a land crisis for the government. At Anlong Kngann,

17 kilometers and 50 minutes north of the city, nearly 1,000 families have still

not received land and are living under tarpaulins. More than 1,000 families who

continue to squat at the Bassac Commune say they are also waiting for


My Lang sits in floodwater outside her shack at Anlong Kngann.

The municipality initially provided 4,000 plots of land at the 154

hectare Anlong Kngann site and 450 plots at Anlong Gong that, according to

official lists, should have covered the 3,300 families who lost their houses.

Yet the two relocation sites are now full and new families continue to arrive

every day at Anlong Kngann in the hope of being granted plots.

The chief

of Phnom Penh's Municipal Cabinet Mann Chhoeurn says 154 hectares would have

been sufficient to relocate all fire victims but the government had to give

plots to the original owners of land at the relocation site as compensation. He

says this left just 86 hectares for new plots and facilities such as schools and

drainage systems, which was insufficient.

Peter Swan, an advisor at UN

Habitat, says the problems stem from inaccurate lists of fire victims at the two


"A combination of deliberate corruption and confusion have

dogged the process of developing the numbers, and the problem continues," Swan

says. "Some of those entitled to plots had to pay to get their names on lists, a

significant number who were not entitled did receive plots, and many of those

who were entitled are still stuck in the Bassac and Chhbar Ampoe


Swan says the intention of the governor and municipality to

provide housing to the poor is admirable but has opened the flood gates of

demand, with thousands of poor from the city and surrounding provinces who were

not fire victims also trying to obtain land.

"The pent up demand is huge.

When the poor are squatting in Phnom Penh they are in dreadful circumstances but

basically look after themselves and are no burden on the municipality. When the

municipality initiates land supply it finds itself confronted with demands that

far outstrip its ability to deliver," he says.

Mann Chhoeurn agrees that

many of those requesting land were not in the first group of fire victims.

"The real victims appeared immediately after the fire. The second group

were people who were renting houses, and now the third group are professional

squatters who are taking this opportunity," he says.

Chhoeurn says there

are 651 families "staying illegally" at Anlong Kngann.

"Because they were

not on local authority records [as Bassac residents] it will be impossible for

the municipality to help them. They will have to look after themselves," he


At Bassac commune 1,391 families still squatting there claim they

missed out on being put on the fire victim list because they were renting and so

did not have land titles. Their shacks are situated upon land owned by the sons

of the late Okhna Sou Sroun. It is inevitable they will be moved.


of seven Hem Chhun is coordinating the squatters' attempts to get


"My own feeling and [that of] others is that we don't want to move.

The new place is in a remote area and we don't know how to make a living there,"

he says. "But here the authorities come to ransack our new houses when we build


"I have my team on patrol at night to prevent someone burning our


Chhoeurn says the government is investigating through the

district authorities to see if they are genuine fire victims. Although the

Bassac residents have chosen a new site called Roka Kos in Dang Kor district,

the municipality has no money for the relocation.

Chhoeurn believes the

best solution would be for the squatters to send a letter to the governor asking

for his help to find a solution.

"It is above my capacity to help them.

Our governor is a strong man and he can submit a request to the Prime Minister

very quickly. I am only a small man," he says.

Relocation of those left

behind at Bassac is not the government's current focus.

"Our priority is

the squatters around Stung Meanchey bridge, because the Japanese government

wants to give us a large grant to renovate the canal and pumping station," says

Chhoeurn. "So we are trying to solve the problem of where to relocate those 300

families first."

A final group of fire victims remains at the Chhbar

Ampoe commune across Monivong Bridge in Phnom Penh. Sixty-year-old Nguyen Yang

Oeu has lived in the commune for 20 years and says that when the fires destroyed

their houses, only Cambodian families were allowed to leave.


Vietnamese had to stay. Some people changed their names to Cambodian names and

left, but I didn't," Oeu said.

Swan says that in all likelihood Oeu's

account is true and he believes that the issue of migration must be sorted out

between the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments. He also says the UN recognizes

that the very poor need to live in urban districts with higher income groups

where money is circulating, so they can provide services such as transportation,

selling food or washing for richer families.

"When you put them out

there without any linkage to other higher income groups it creates a very

depressed environment," he says.

At Anlong Kngann, positive steps are

being taken to improve conditions. There is already one primary school and four

others on the way. The Ministry of Agriculture supplied more than 4,500 saplings

which will eventually provide shade, and there is a privately owned


The municipality's Urban Poverty Reduction Unit (UPRU), assisted

by UN Habitat, has set up a health clinic that treats about 70 patients a day,

charging 500 riel for adults, 200 riel for children, and free treatment for the

very poor.

The UPRU along with health NGOs recently completed a tetanus

vaccination campaign that also supplied vitamin A, vaccines to pregnant women

and medicines combating parasites to three-quarters of the residents. Sy

Kimhiek, a health clinic nurse, says the problems are still


"A lot of people here have malnutrition because they have no

rice fields and no jobs," she says. "A big problem is that there are no hygienic

toilets. The pump well water is not clean and it causes a rash on the


Dr Sour Salan from the municipality's health department helped

establish the clinic. He acknowledges that people use contaminated pump water

that is causing digestive system problems and infections.

"I took this

water to a lab and it had many bacteria in it," he says. "It is suitable for

cooking, but people do not have enough money to buy fuel to cook."


is also concerned that no one has thought about the supply of food to the site's

numerous malnourished children.

"Most of the children are malnourished.

They have very dry skin, their hair goes orange and they are very skinny," he

says. "It stops them being able to learn and makes them very susceptible to

other diseases."

That comes as no surprise to resident Mey Vun, who has

camped at the site for six months waiting for land. While she talked to the Post

her daughter lay in their small shack sick with fever.

"I have many

difficulties living here," she says. "We have no house or land, children get

sick with diarrhoea and fever, and we have no money for medicine or food. We go

to the toilet in the rice fields or at the clinic."

Even basic

necessities are out of the price range of many at Anlong Kngann. A 20-liter

bottle of clean water, for example, costs 600 riel, and village chief San Sokha

says electricity costs 1,400 riel per kilowatt. That puts it out of reach of 95

percent of residents who instead resort to kerosene lamps.

Salan and Swan

agree the site's location is far from ideal and say the absence of basic

infrastructure before people were resettled now presents huge challenges.

"We provide preventative care for people, but we shouldn't only think

about curative treatments," says Salan. "We need to think about their physical

and economic environment. People went there with nothing, so conditions are


Swan says UN Habitat has installed 165 double toilets and NGOs have

also worked on the water supply. Demand, however, has outstripped


"Pit latrines have been put in, but in a very wet country like

this they will become flooded and very unsanitary," he says. "It is very hard to

get it right after the fact when people are living there. When the water table

rises they are walking around in fecal matter and contracting waterborne



A number of deaths have occurred at both sites. UN Habitat says that between

November and January, six babies died from dysentery, dehydration and extreme

weather conditions at Anlong Gong. One official says that Anlong Kngann could

become a breeding ground for cholera.

The Municipality's Salan says the

clinic provides referrals allowing pregnant women access to free services at

hospitals. Despite this, he is concerned that many women continued to deliver

babies using four traditional midwives at the site.

"Three weeks ago a

mother nearly died, and her baby did die, while giving birth using traditional

methods," he says. "We think many other babies are dying. I will suggest the

problem to the director of health and ask him to help me identify why they don't

use the clinic."

Given the widespread health problems, the lack of job

opportunities, and the high cost of transportation to the city, many people the

Post spoke to say they want to return to Phnom Penh. Many sites have been

abandoned or sold as a result.

And circumstances are equally tough at the

second relocation site, Anlong Gong which lies 18 kilometers southwest of the

city. The fire victims there have received no housing support, although loans

for housing will apparently be processed in the near future.

"It is a

very inappropriate area, a flash-flood plain," says Swan. "All its residents

were renting at the Bassac commune so they are very poor. Most are still living

with six poles and the plastic they were given six months ago."


flooding problems at Anlong Gong are so pronounced that the site was unsuitable

even for growing rice. UPRU is trying to build a dike, but the recent downpours

caused a flood that left 26 houses almost half a meter underwater.


says the problems for the 300 families of the initial 450 families who remain

are worse than those at Anlong Kngann.

"There is no school or health

room," he says. "And with so few families we cannot build a clinic because it

won't be sustainable in the future."

The UPRU says the numerous problems

that prevail in the two locations illustrate that when people are not involved

in choosing their new site, they have a negative approach to the resettlement.

They quickly abandon plots if they cannot earn a living. The Unit's report

states that large-scale relocations are hard to coordinate, and cites problems

of corruption within the different levels of local authority.


Chhoeurn says the municipality's new approach is to consult the community, offer

a choice of sites, and supply them with basic services before relocation.

In March this year 267 families lost their houses in a fire at a rooftop

squatter community at Block Tanpa near Psah Thmei. Mann Chhoeurn says the

families were relocated to the site of their choice, Krang Ang Krong Two, this

week and are "very, very happy".

Swan believes this successful example

of voluntary relocation is the key to future resettlements.

"In order

for it to work, those being relocated must be involved in choosing their new

site," he says. "We also argue for small scale, slower resettlement so that new

families can be absorbed more easily into the existing population and


The new policy should benefit Phnom Penh's squatters in the

future, but for now the people at Anlong Kngann and Anlong Gong are not able to

make such choices.

Sun Sary, who represents 651 families waiting for

land at Anlong Kngann, says his people are simply trying to get through the wet


"We are very worried now that the rainy season has started," he

says. "The officials just told us to stay quietly where we are and wait, but we

still do not have proper accommodation, and last night when the rain came people

couldn't sleep all night."

And for My Lang the problems go even further.

She depends on charity for rice, and has a $200 debt hanging over her head for a

motorbike that was subsequently stolen.

Sitting in the midday heat

outside her flooded hut on a muddy, flooded road, My Lang says she has no way to

pay back the money. The rains have simply compounded an already hopeless


"Even if I sell this land, I cannot get enough money to pay

back the debt," she says. "I don't know whether there is hope for the future. I

will just have to wait and see."



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