foaming waste water, at Boeng Trabeck.
t's a problem that every one of Phnom Penh's one million residents contribute to
every day - and it's getting worse.
With the onset of the wet season you're as likely to wade through it as you are to
sense its malodorous underground journey towards the Tonle Sap.
It's Phnom Penh's sewage, and if you've ever wondered where it goes, the unpalatable
answer is that it's probably the street in front of your house.
Unlike most other Asian capitals, Phnom Penh remains a city without any comprehensive
sewage treatment system.
Instead, human waste is dealt with on a house-by-house basis through locally constructed
three-chambered septic tanks.
These are successful in removing the solid waste and in three-quarters treating the
household sewage, but during rainy seasons full septic tanks frequently overflow,
and even the most fully-functioning systems lack adequate absorption pits and thus
produce toxic run-off.
With no sewage treatment system, the foul run-off enters the city's storm drains,
turning pumping stations into cesspools and polluting Phnom Penh's rivers and lakes.
According to Heng Nareth, Chief of the Ministry of Environment's Environmental Pollution
Department, Boeng Trabaek lake acts as a natural wastewater treatment area for up
to 80% of the city's waste water.
Nareth claims that the lake effectively filters up to 80% of the bacteria in waste
water before it reaches the Bassac River.
But this natural filter is now under pressure from population growth, and flooding
around the lake is increasing as land reclamation to build housing progressively
shrinks the lake's area.
Pipes and Progress
Ironically the city's growing sewage problem is linked to the success that the Phnom
Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) has had in improving access to water throughout
Over the past three years PPWSA has renewed and extended all of Phnom Penh's minor
water mains, delivering good quality water to the city and stimulating demand for
flush toilets and their inadequate septic systems.
And this is only the beginning. PPWSA predicts that Phnom Penh's water demand will
more than double by 2015.
"Once you give a good water supply to an area you create the problem of sewage,"
explained Robert Board, Project Manager with Parsons Engineering, which is charged
with piloting a new sewage system for Phnom Penh.
Water is a health hazard for Makara, aged nine, who lives and plays near Stung Meanchey outfall, Phnom Penh
During the dry season the septic run-off creates only a minor health risk out of
the city's storm water system, Board says.
But during the wet season Phnom Penh's flooded streets become a stagnant e-coli rich
"The water comes out of the house and where does it go?" Board said of
the unresolved dilemma of Phnom Penh's water treatment.
"Water will find its own level [and] although it's had some treatment biologically
that [rainy season flood water] is still pretty bad and everybody is wading through
In fact many Phnom Penh residents are also playing in it, swimming in it, washing
their clothes in it and living their lives surrounded by it.
As a result, Phnom Penh - like the rest of Cambodia - suffers from high rates of
water borne diseases, with children particularly vulnerable to gastro-intestinal
illnesses caused by poor sanitation and untreated water.
Life near the pumps
Those perched on top of the city's various pumping stations designed to pipe storm
water from the city to surrounding rivers and lakes are the most vulnerable to the
health effects wrought by the city's lack of an effective sewage treatment system.
Hun Sokhom, 44, sits on the floor of her wooden house peeling vegetables just half
a meter above the waste-thick outflow of the Stung Meanchey pumping station.
When the station is operating the air around it becomes putrid and fills with a snow-like
foam created by chemicals in the water. The wisps of airborne chemical foam float
through her home and mix with whatever food she cooks.
"If I had enough money to buy a house elsewhere I would leave this place immediately",
she says, "All my family members get sick when the outlet is operating. This
is not a nice place to live."
Others living near the station complain of frequent headaches, colds and fevers.
"I want the station to pump without making the smell and foam" said Sokhum's
15 year old son Chhun Sokha.
Help at hand
Phnom Penh's Toul Kork District, characterized by flat ground composed of non-absorbent
clay, bears the brunt of the weeks sewage flooding that afflicts Phnom Penh during
the rainy season.
But Toul Kork's sewage woes may well soon be a thing of the
past thanks to a World Bank-funded $5 million dollar sewage and storm water system
The project, which is slated to begin in April and be fully operational within 19
months, is being touted as a model of sewage treatment for towns and cities throughout
Upon the project's completion more than 6,000 households will become connected to
three local treatment plants via almost 100 kilometers of sewer pipe.
The treatment plants will safely treat the water and render the water in the district's
storm drains effectively bacteria-free.
Until World Bank largesse extends to the sewage problems of the rest of the city,
rubber boots and anti-bacterial ointment will continue to serve as essential components
of rainy season urban survival kits.