The Japan International Cooperation Agency, or JICA, is the independent agency of the Japanese government that coordinates official development assistance (ODA) for economic and infrastructure improvement in developing countries. JICA offers technical cooperation, ODA loans and grants, all paid by Japanese taxpayers.JICA senior representative Ito Takashi sat down with the Post to talk about the projects that the agency is involved with in the Kingdom and about the current state of infrastructure in Phnom Penh and the provinces.
How many projects related to the construction and infrastructure sector has JICA developed in Cambodia? In which areas?
It is quite difficult to say how many projects JICA has developed. There are so many, such as roads; ports, including the biggest port in Cambodia, Sihanoukville Port; water sector projects like drainage; and also power transmission as well as power generation.
With what JICA has achieved so far in the construction sector, what tangible ways have Cambodians seen their lives improved?
Well, people can benefit from our projects in many ways. Regarding the water drainage in Phnom Penh, I believe that people who have been living in the city for a long time and know it well think that the situation is getting better during the raining season, because the duration of floods is now much shorter than before. Even now, when there is a lot of rainfall, roads and streets will be flooded; but in the past, the situation was much more severe. So, I believe a lot of people who have been in Phnom Penh for a long time feel the difference between now and before.
Another example is Sihanoukville port, though it may not be as visible as those benefits. Now, between 60 and 70 per cent of the cargo exported from or imported to Cambodia is moved through Sihanoukville. This affects in a good sense people’s lives in many ways, because through the export of products like garments, rice and cassava, a lot of job opportunities have been created. And concerning imports, a lot of things that are necessary for daily life are imported through the Sihanoukville port. So, I believe that whether it’s in a visible way or not, we successfully contribute to the raising of the living standard of people in Cambodia.
What challenges has JICA faced in developing its infrastructure projects?
There have been a lot of things. First of all, we have to say that we always pay attention to the safety of construction and environmental issues, including resettlements and land degradation. All these things shall be handled in a proper manner, and JICA pays attention to these aspects, but our partner agencies, like government ministries and other public entities, should also pay much attention to those areas. We collaborate with each other to ensure these things that everyone sees.
The other thing is that the capacity for implementation by relevant ministries or agencies is not always sufficient. This doesn’t always mean that individuals working in those ministries or public agencies don’t have potential or capacity, but it is widely recognised that people working in public sectors are not really well paid. It is also widely known that those many people working in the public sector have some side jobs or side businesses, and this situation is critical when we consider the development of the capacity of the public sector, the capacity of project funding, monitoring and implementation, and of course, infrastructure and construction in terms of time for completion and in terms of budget.
Capacity-building of the public sector is really important, but not easy, because first we can provide some technical cooperation but we cannot support them in such a manner forever. Just training people alone is not sufficient, because simple training for a short duration cannot make them perfect; a learning-by-doing process after the training is necessary. After their training, these people engaging in public-sector projects are expected to continue their activities with on-the-job training, but sometimes due to a limited budget allocated from the government, it can be difficult for these people to continue their daily activities. Without their daily activities, their skills and capacity are idle and somehow disappear. In this sense, we can support them. To ensure sustainability, I believe that there is room for improvement which can be taken care of by the government.
How do you feel about the job being done with the maintenance of existing infrastructure?
That is another aspect of sustainability. The maintenance of existing infrastructure is not always done well. This is widely recognized, not only by JICA but also by other development partners. There is much room here for the government to improve the situation. This might be done by the reallocation of the maintenance budget. This must be tied in with the capacity building of the people engaging in the maintenance. There are various problems which should be addressed in the field of maintenance.
What projects is JICA working on right now?
Many projects are under way. In particular, the famous Mekong Bridge, which is now expected to be completed in March. And the Phnom Penh drainage project, famous among people who live in the city, seems to continue forever – almost forever, for more than 10 years anyway. The current phase of this project will be completed in October next year. There are also provincial projects – we are now constructing a small hydropower plant in Ratanakkiri to improve the power supply in that province. There are several other projects that are ongoing, too.
What about the budget disbursement? How much has JICA provided for the construction sector so far?
Well, this is also a very difficult question to answer, because we have a long history of this. But there are some impressive statistics. Approximately $2.4 billion was disbursed between 1992 and 2013. That includes everything – not only for infrastructure but also other activities, such as health and education. As far as the construction sector is concerned, between 2005 and 2013, we disbursed about $500 million, which is quite a big figure.
JICA divides official development assistance into different categories. In the projects you’ve mentioned, what kind of assistance is involved?
We have three cooperation windows: technical cooperation, grants and loans. We are keen to establish the best mix between these cooperation methods. Let’s take Sihanoukville port as an example. As you know very well, the port was somehow not really devastated during the civil war period, but it was not well maintained either, so it has greatly benefited from a series of financial cooperation projects with JICA. This rehabilitation, including the expansion of the port, was carried out mainly through ODA loans.
Now we are working with multiple parties on the creation of a port authority to modernise the administration and operation of the container terminal. Even though the physical infrastructure is there, the management of the port itself needs to be better. The infrastructure and equipment have not been effectively used. We expect to develop the capacity of the port authority and modernise its administration, as well as level up the service of the container terminal. Sihanoukville is the biggest port in Cambodia, but it is just another port when we compare it to those elsewhere in ASEAN, like Lungchaban in Bangkok, or the port in Singapore, or those in neighbouring countries, such as the famous Kamativa port in Vietnam. Because the port has such competition now, it needs to continuously improve the quality of its management. I hope that this combination of financial cooperation and technical cooperation will raise the physical and managerial capacity of the port authority so that we can expect that the operation will be more efficient, more customers will come, and more customers will benefit from the cooperation of the port.
Is JICA currently looking at any new projects?
Well, we have a few big projects in the pipeline. One of them is a new expressway project from Phnom Penh to the border city Bavet. Our purpose is to develop ASEAN Highway Number 1 linking Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand along National Roads 1 and 5. Transportation capacity of National Road Number 1 is still limited, even after the completion of the Mekong Bridge, so we are now planning the Phnom Penh-Bavet expressway. We have already confirmed the intention and willingness of the government of Vietnam to construct an expressway from Ho Chi Minh City to the border.
Those two initiatives are expected to link Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City with a time of only two and a half hours. Right now, using the existing National Road Number 1 it takes about four or five hours to go to Ho Chi Minh from Phnom Penh. This project will drastically change transportation between the two countries.
Cambodia has been attracting a lot of foreign investment for economic development recently, and the focus of this has not only been on conventional areas but also more high-tech sectors like electronics and automobiles. For such industries that are relatively new to Cambodia, time really is money. And because of this, it isn’t acceptable to have a road in such condition that the time between the capitals is up to five hours. Bringing the capitals to within three hours of each other will drastically change the supply chain between the two countries.
We are also planning the fourth phase of the drainage project in Phnom Penh. After its completion, even at times of intense rain, flooding will only reach up to the ankle at most. The situation during the rainy season will be a lot better and a lot more comfortable.