E ric Vohr's article on the floating farms of Boeung Trabek was very informative
("City fighting flood problem, but lake squatters to lose", Post Feb 9-22),
but there is one additional important issue in this story. The floating farms and
homes in Boeung Trabek exist in raw sewage and untreated storm waters. Many of the
vegetables, herbs, and spices grown in these lowlands, as well as other flooded lands
in Phnom Penh, are eaten without first being cooked. The health risks to farmers,
residents, and customers buying the produce at the market have not been studied,
although one experienced UN worker mentioned that typhoid fever illnesses have been
caused by practices at floating farms. Anyone who visits the area could quickly understand
the problem as evidenced by pungent odors, black water, and foam. Reducing human
contact with the untreated wastewater is essential for protecting public health.
Obviously, this issue will add to the reasons to evict the floating farmers. Therefore,
the government and donor agencies should seriously consider adequate compensation,
and provision of farmable land close to Phnom Penh, so the farmers can continue to
use their existing markets.
This area shows potential for development of a natural wastewater treatment system
for Phnom Penh. Such a system, based on engineered ponds and wetlands for example,
could be designed at the upstream end of Boeung Trabek (as well as in other areas
of Phnom Penh). A properly designed treatment works would allow the farmers downstream
to utilize treated waters, still rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, but without the
disease-causing organisms and toxic metals. A natural system is substantially less
expensive to build and maintain (millions of dollars less), treats water more effectively
and reliably, and is easier to operate versus the "concrete and steel"
systems we often associate with wastewater treatment. The difficulty is natural treatment
systems require sizable land areas and, undoubtedly, some farmers would have to move.
I believe many residents would be happy to move given a fair price for the land and
assistance in finding other suitable farming sites. The area is not the most pleasant
to live and work in, aside from the health problems.
There are at least four international organizations currently working on the flooding
and wastewater problem in Phnom Penh. Lets hope they consider all the available options
for control and treatment of these waters, and present these options to the affected
populations (who will probably have to pay the future costs of the selected technology,
regardless of who constructs it). The money saved by constructing a natural treatment
system could be spent on helping relocate farmers in high risk areas, health and
sanitation education, and providing sanitation for the floating farmers remaining
in the area.
- Douglas Titus, Consultant Biologist for IDRC, Battambang