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When roads become rivers

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Shoddy construction means even Phnom Penh’s newest roads flood, with excess water damaging road surfaces and making them impassable

Nguon Sovan

The Hanoi road running through Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district was constructed with no proper drainage and has rapidly become impassable.

Newly constructed roads on the outskirts of Phnom Penh are deteriorating rapidly, according to local residents, who say hasty repair work and a lack of proper drainage are condemning them to a life of chronic wet-season flooding.

"Each time it rains, water flows into my house at knee level and it takes nearly the whole night to pump it out. There is no drainage, so it floods when the big rains come," said Top Srieng, 67, who lives along the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship highway (Hanoi Road).

The Hanoi Road, which runs 15km through Russey Keo district, was paved with bitumen about five years ago, but Top Sreing said that since last year approximately four kilometres of its length have been made unusable as a result of the lack of proper drainage and the constant passage of heavy vehicles that has seriously damaged the road's surface.

The damage was compounded, he said, by the fact that the construction company has taken shortcuts in repairing the road's natural wear and tear.

"Whenever big holes form in the road, they bulldoze it, making the road lower and causing more water to settle in it," he said. "There are drainage materials scattered along the road, but it is likely there is no money left to construct [drains] because the construction workers seem to come and go," he said.

What causes the floods?

Nhem Saran, director of the Municipal Department of Public Works and Transport, said that Phnom Penh's problems with flooding stemmed primarily from the city's small, antiquated  drainage system. The fact that some of the drains emptying into Boeung Trabek and Boeung Tumpun lakes were blocked up by lakeside residents compounded the problem, he said.

"Some drainage dikes are shallow so the water has no way to flow out, or can only flow out slowly," he added.

Nhem Saran said the Hanoi Road was repaired by David Construction Co, a private contractor, but that the company had failed to adhere to the government's road engineering standards, based on benchmarks from the United States and Australia, which mandate the installation of drainage systems.

"We advised the company to comply with the standards for building drains, but they ignored it - that's why the road is seriously damaged," he said. "I am writing a letter to City Hall to instruct the company about this."

Khy Peuv, managing director of David Construction, said his company was awarded a US$3 million contract to repair the Hanoi Road three months ago, but that rain was holding up the construction.

"We have worked on the drains for three months, but due to the rain the work cannot go ahead. When it dries up we will continue," he said. "We expect to finish the installation of the drains within the next three months and then the road construction will be complete two months after that."

He added that the company normally built roads with tar, but since tar roads can not withstand water, the new road would be built with concrete. "Concrete roads cost more than tar roads, [but] last up to 15 years longer," he said.

But opposition lawmaker Yim Sovann said that whoever was in charge, municipal road construction suffered from widespread corruption and a lack of enforceable standards.

"Everybody knows about the corruption in Cambodia. Because of [corruption], they build roads and in one year they need to be repaired again," he said, adding that the government exercised little actual control over contractors.

"Cambodia gives a lot of its road construction to the engineering department of the military, where there are no standards, no quality control and no competitive bidding," he said. "Some are given to private companies, but there is [still] no mechanism for ensuring quality."

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