THE poor of Phnom Penh often live in appalling conditions. A report prepared for
the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) describes
the Borei Kammakar building, home to around 70 families, as a death-trap, and
'at extreme risk of collapse'.
Several hundred people live in the
complex's three parallel buildings behind the Bayon Hospital near Monivong
Bridge. From the main road the white-washed facade of the first 1960s-era
building looks in reasonable shape; entering the complex reveals its alarming
Crumbling support pillars taper down to a rotting concrete
walkway, exposing the steel frames. Large cracks run along most walls, and
ceilings in some apartments have buckled. The plaster that once covered the
walls has cracked and fallen away, revealing rotting brickwork, while the
concrete roof above one walkway has collapsed entirely. Experts acknowledge that
the entire edifice is living on borrowed time.
Despite its appalling
state, all the apartments are occupied. Some residents have lived here since
1979, and most of the rest came here in the early 1980s. All are aware of the
problems, but with little money they have no alternative but to wait until
someone else sorts it out.
Hang Yim, a 60-year-old mother of seven,
settled here in 1979 just two weeks after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge
regime. Yim says hers was the first family to move in. She recalls that in those
days, the building was in good condition.
"In 1979 it looked good. Now it
is cracking and I am afraid it will collapse. [However] I cannot leave because
there is nowhere else to go," she told the Post.
Years of neglect resulted in the collapse of the walkway roof.
Policeman Chea Sok Nov
says his family arrived in 1983. He says that its condition is worse than ever.
Like the other residents, Nov fears it could collapse at any time, but on a
salary of less than $20 a month, he cannot afford to buy a plot of land and
build a new house.
"We continue to live patiently in this old building,"
he says. "Sometimes when there is heavy rain or a storm, I just close my eyes
and ears. The government should pay more attention to us and help us find a
The reason for its appalling state, though, is due in
large part to the residents themselves. Most current owners and the municipality
blame those who lived here in the 1980s for damaging the building. Until 1985,
when the government banned the cottage industry, many residents produced ice in
antiquated fridges; salt water used in that process seeped through the structure
and damaged the building.
The residents know this too well. Sin Sokhan,
55, moved here in 1979. She used to make ice and says that she used around 50
kilograms of salt every month. She reckons she was one of the few to prevent the
leaking of salt water.
"The municipality sent us letter advising us to
leave temporarily, but where should we go?" she asked. "My family has no money
to build a new house."
She told the Post of a rumor that an NGO wanted to
negotiate with the community to replace the building with a new condominium, but
an agreement was not reached.
"Although some people wanted to sell their
rooms, others were not convinced that they would be allowed to return after
completion of the new building."
The CRC report states that 'urgent
attention be given to providing training in disaster mitigation, especially in
relation to the dire status of the Borei Kammakar building'. It describes the
building as 'a disaster waiting to happen' during the next wet season. Despite
the report's sensible recommendation, the deputy governor of Phnom Penh
Municipality, Chev Kim Hong, says no emergency plan has been drawn
Instead, the municipality has held discussions with other departments
such as the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Urbanization and Land
Management on how to help the residents. They are still waiting.
Phnom Penh Municipality authorized an NGO to negotiate with the inhabitants
asking them to leave temporarily to allow them to renovate the buildings," he
says. "The renovation fees should be paid by the individual owners, but they
have no money."
Kim Hong says residents' would rather sell their
apartments outright than move out for renovation work in the hope that they
would be allowed back afterwards. He adds that the building has had no work done
to it since it was built in the 1960s.
Village chief Kuy Oeurn told the
Post that the cost of buying the building and its one hectare plot of land would
be around $2 million. He sees two solutions to the problem: one, sell the
building outright to a developer; two, pull it down and rebuild condominiums in
its place. He says that although most residents would like to sell their
apartments for between $6,000 and $10,000, that is too high for an
"Now people seemed to change their mind - they want NGOs to
rebuild by giving them a long-term repayment loan," he says, adding that the
United Nations Center for Human Settlements (UNCHS) had said it was keen to
provide low-interest loans to remedy the situation.
Oeurn says that the
UNCHS experts had told him the building would collapse within one and a half
years. The organization proposed tearing down the existing building and erecting
a new block that would shelter 172 families of around 900 people, which would
include those families living in tin sheds around the base of the crumbling
Peter Swan, a senior technical advisor to UNCHS, says his
organization has been in discussion with the municipality on the fate of the
building for several years. He explains that the low interest loans would come
through the Urban Poverty Reduction Fund, which would offer small loans to the
residents - around $400 per family. Although this is insufficient for
redevelopment, he is confident that the residents will add to this when they
feel they have security of tenure, an essential condition of donor
Swan attributes the slow progress on the fate of the building to
the "difficult balancing act" the municipality needs to make when juggling the
priorities of the city's poorest 20 percent with the needs for the inhabitants
as a whole.
"We are trying to negotiate in the next month or two to get
an agreement on this," he says. "The general principle we are promoting is to
protect the livelihoods and well-being of the poor, and to re-house them at
locations as close as possible to their existing locations. It is not always an
option, but wherever it is, we feel it should be considered."
Kammakar building is a real and present danger for those living in it," says
Swan, "but the municipality is conscious of that and is keen, along with us, to
do something about it."