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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Trash, Sanitation Problems Overwhelm Phnom Penh

Trash, Sanitation Problems Overwhelm Phnom Penh

Early in the morning, business activity outside the Psah Chah (Old Market) is going

into full swing. Fish and vegetable vendors are settling themselves under the shade

of big trees in the park next to the market. Some are sitting on the sidewalks, some

are moving further into the pathways of the park.

No flowers grow in the park. Human and vegetable waste and all sorts of rubbish arising

from nearby business activity are scattered in the thick grass. The volume of the

garbage heaped up at the eastern part of the park looks bigger than the three packed

containers awaiting trucks to evacuate them out of the city.

The whole scene is pitifully full of anarchy and recklessness.

One of the controllers said, "Residents in this Sangkat are lazy. They bring

the garbage out and leave it on the sidewalks of the park. Some traders come with

small baskets of green water. After selling it, they get up and leave rubbish behind."

Ouk Kosal, 36, the chief of the committee of Psah Chah, said, "We regularly

collect rubbish in the market three times a day.

"That garbage in the garden comes after the market is closed," he added,

pointing to the garden. "By laziness, the nearby residents hurl it through the

windows, and sometimes they use the garden for their latrine."

Psah Chah's problem with rubbish and waste is indicative of Phnom Penh as a whole:

trash is heaped everywhere, some burning in slow, smudgy fires.

The city's roads and some public places have become an ashtray for pedestrians and

drivers who travel with cigarettes in hand. Even when a curbside trash container

is empty, the rubbish is scattered on the sidewalk next to it.

Sam Samut, 32, the chief deputy of the cleaning subdivision of the Municipal City

Communications Department, said, "Containers create rubbish, and those who make

their kids bring the rubbish out, or people who cannot reach the edge of the container,

they leave it on the ground."

Part of the responsibility has to be taken by the authority in each Sangkat-or quarter-of

the city. But the carrying out of this duty has been stymied, Kosal said, by the

unresponsiveness of city employees charged with that responsibility.

Kosal said, "We sweep the rubbish in the market's compound only. Things on the

sidewalks are not our job."

To this Samut responded that the market, however, must deal with business activities

that spread outside its limits and cause disorder in public areas. He affirmed that

his division had also signed an agreement with city Sangkat representatives under

which the latter must employ laborers to collect garbage. "We are providing

them means, such as lorries and containers. But in practice they don't work,"

Samut said.

On the other hand, the shortages of technical supplies, equipment and a labor force

are the major obstacles preventing the task from being carried out smoothly. The

solid waste subdivision possesses 37 old garbage trucks, most of them Soviet-manufactured.

"In a day, five to six trucks fail to operate. The government gives us more

than 1 million riels [U.S. $500] a month for maintenance. But we can't do [repairs]

with that amount because spare parts are expensive now, especially the Soviet parts,"

Samut complained.

While the cost of living has been pushed up by inflation and the resulting price

increases, the disparity in payment by the government and private companies has set

up new conditions in which physical laborers are looking for better paying work.

Samut said that workers don't want to collect garbage on the city's streets for a

daily salary of 500 to 600 riels-three times lower than that received by the average

construction worker.

Recently, materials and equipment were transferred to the city's Communications Department

under a Partnership for Development in Kampuchea (PADEK) program for Urban Community

Development activities. They include a Massey-Fergusson excavator, 120 refuse containers,

and sewer cleaning equipment. These items, worth about U.S. $72,000, are part of

a U.S. $265,000 PADEK assistance package funded by the Dutch organization NOVIB and

the European Economic Community.

The 120 new containers bring to 700 the number now in use in the city, but 700 is

not enough. The garbage overflows from the containers and still clogs the streets

where there are no containers.

"The problem is the garbage still waits for people to come and collect it,"

said Robert Deutsch, Urban Community Development advisor of PADEK. "Sometimes,"

he added, "they [people] don't throw it into containers, but into drainage or

on the ground instead." He said, however, some parts of the city had seen some

improvement recently.

Selling "Et Chay"

The surface of the two dumps in Stung Mean Chey is covered by a thick current of

flies. Villagers roam the dumps looking for "et chay" or bits of copper

and aluminium, cans, glass, and shells of cooking oil. Decayed house pets, vegetable

and human waste produce such a stink that it can reach residents in that area at

a distance of 400 to 500 meters.

"We have been living here for many years. We have already adapted to this smell

because we don't know where else to go," said 45-year-old Kem Sor, whose cottage

is located on the dump's edge and is surrounded by squalid conditions. Kem is a state

employee who is paid 15,000 riels a month.

To cover his daily food costs of 1,500 to 2,000 riels to feed his family, Kem Sor

has to leave his children to work each day on the garbage pile. Selected items are

divided into categories: one kilogram of copper is sold for 300 riels, one cooking

oil shell for 100 riels, and one can for 4 riels.

The Community Development Advisor of the nongovernmental organization Enfants du

Cambodge, Sabine Lagardere said that 80 percent of the population in the villages

of Trea and Damnak Thom of Stung Mean Chey scavenged in the garbage dump.

"It's terrible to see people working in the [garbage]," she said. "But,

we cannot prevent them from doing so, because they need money to buy rice."

Enfants du Cambodge has also provided education and health care programs to protect

those working the dump from contracting disease.

Some recommendations have been made to improve city sanitation, but when asked if

his division can cope with the matter, Samut said, "One of the problems is resources."

PADEK's Deutsch said, "Phnom Penh has a great potential to decompose rubbish

such as vegetable waste." According to him the Municipality's Communications

Department has recommended that to reduce its volume, the rubbish be decomposed and

used as fertilizer.

Samut said, however, education remains an important issue when "the people's

awareness is so low."

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