As the lake fills in, the city – and thousands of families – face major changes
Residents of Boeung Kak’s Village 4 dismantle homes in preparation for their departure from the site.
The 'Pearl of asia'
In 2003, Phnom Penh municipality, in partnership with the French Embassy, held an international design competition to rejuvenate the Boeung Kak area and restore Phnom Penh to its previous status as “The Pearl of Asia”. The winning design, known as PEARL (Preservation, Evolution, Ambition to Regenerate the Lake), maintained over 90 percent of the lake and featured a “vast green space accessible to all”. In mid-2006, however, the Pearl Plan was shelved and the land was leased to local developer Shukaku Inc, which plans to fill all but 10 percent of the lake.
WITH its carpet of water-logged morning glory and panoramic sunsets, visitors and locals have long treasured Boeung Kak lake as a rural oasis amid the traffic-choked streets of Phnom Penh.
But now architects and urban planners are saying the loss of the lake to commercial development will tarnish the city once regarded as the "Pearl of Asia", ceding one of its last remaining green spaces to colourless urban sprawl.
Urban-planning experts contacted by the Post said the project was irresponsible and could trigger unforeseen environmental consequences, despite City Hall assurances that the 133-hectare Boeung Kak development has been vetted for its environmental impact.
"The site of Phnom Penh is an extremely fragile one," said Helen Grant Ross, co-author of Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture, 1953-1970.
"As anyone can see when landing at Pochentong in the rainy season, the city is like an island built in the middle of a complex wetland." She said that local developer Shukaku, in filling the lake, was failing to account for the unpredictable Phnom Penh urban environment and ignoring the possibility of serious flooding.
"There has been no impact study and the long-term effect of the [Boeung Kak] landfill is unknown," she said. "The water level of the Mekong varies enormously from one year to another, and one day... ‘the Dragon' will take its revenge and flood the whole area."
Shukaku did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this series.
Hallam Goad, an adviser to housing rights advocacy group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said the filling of the lake would be manageable in the short-term, but could create future complications.
"[The landfill] is not going to be insurmountable, engineering-wise. But overall, there is no comprehensive plan to deal with the city's drainage," he said.
"They are adding pressure on drainage reserves, which will rely on ever-larger pumping machines and, ultimately, a total rehaul of the drainage system."
The municipality claims it has conducted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project, and it has given the green light to the decision to fill 90 percent of the lake with sand, a process that began August 26.
Speaking at a meeting with 450 lakeside residents at City Hall on August 18, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema blasted critics who warned of freak floods. "Some critics say Boeung Kak aids flood protection, but they are not scholars who are studying the impact," he said.
However, opponents have criticised the municipality for not making the assessment public, seeing it as proof that City Hall is trying to paper over the project's environmental shortfalls.
"I have not seen the EIA report," said Choung Choungy, an attorney representing 120 lakeside residents. "I think that the EIA was not made public because the project was not pursued in the correct way."
The assessment, portions of which have been obtained by the Post, acknowledges the "serious impact on the livelihoods of people" and the "difficulty [of] rebuilding the quality of life" of those evicted from the lake, but spills much ink extolling the economic benefits of the project.
"The [development] will bring multi-positive benefits for the economy ... and city environment. This project will attract investment estimated at ... US$2 billion," the report claims. It also argues the project will help fill a shortfall in public spaces: "Currently, Phnom Penh has limited entertainment spaces, including children''s playgrounds, sport centres, green areas and entertainment parks."
But architects say the development will do exactly the opposite, filling one of Phnom Penh's last remaining "green and blue" spaces with urban sprawl.
an astute piece of public relations. "The 2004 competition ... didn't cost the municipality any money, so they accepted hosting the event as it was good for their image," she said. "They had no obligation to use this competition as a development plan."
Meng Bunnarith, now a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii, was the Cambodian representative on the Pearl team. He said that the plan provided important lessons for Phnom Penh's urban planners. "The Pearl Plan provide[d] an ambitious vision for city development - taking into account many aspects of planning: social, economic, land use, transportation, as well as environmental - that should be considered ... as a development framework," he said by email.
But with soaring Phnom Penh land prices, maintaining this balance between development and its aftereffects is a daunting challenge. Sung Bonna, CEO of Bonna Realty, told the Post August 15 that undeveloped land at Boeung Kak could fetch between $800 and $1,000 per square metre on the open market, and developed lots over $2,000.
But Matt Rendall, a lawyer at local firm Sciaroni & Associates, said that despite recent growth, Cambodia's real estate sector was still in its infancy and had yet to develop the planning regulations that guide urban construction in developed countries.
"I don't think that in the past [the government] necessarily thought about the need to put regulations in place, they said, ‘We just need people to start building things'," he said. "There's a lot to be done in terms of providing the country with a legal framework. Property just isn't a priority."
Sok Sophal, vice-dean of the faculty of architecture urban urban planning at the Royal University of Fine Arts, agreed that many local developments were unsustainable, but said the city was in no position to enforce strict standards. "In developing countries, the need is to develop. Even if we lack the standards, things have to move forward," he said.
But in terms of Boeung Kak, Rendall said basic regulations, including an open bidding process and the publication of project designs, could ensure the sustainability - and financial success - of private developments.
"If they had a bidding war ... other options [would be put] forward that maybe the government hadn't considered," he said.
Meng Bunnarith said that long-term planning was the only way to ensure sustainable development.
"Because the city lacks a formal land-use plan, the city government, as well as the technical planning department, does not have a solid ground for decisions to be based on," he said. He added that the city's 2020 Urban Master Plan, drafted in consultation with French experts, had not been approved and was therefore having little effect on planning.
"Currently, the municipal government is likely to be seen as a reactive city planner that waits to solve problems," Meng Bunnarith said.
Ultimately, Ross said free debate about urban growth would require more than laws. "Environmental and social issues can only be addressed in a democratic society where ... interests other than financial ones can be addressed," she said. "Like in every field, the government only does things that feed its greed."