We can't just blame the rain for floods

We can't just blame the rain for floods

... building a better city is the only operable answer

This overhead view of the area of Tuol Kork in Phnom Penh shows how well organised it is and how it was carefully planned. The result is the area suffers few of the negative impacts that poorly developed areas in the capital must withstand. What can’t be seen from this view is that Tuol Kork is also built on a relatively high area, a natural advantage that was an important factor in the decision to develop there decades ago. Image From NASA

Meas Kim Seng Technical Programme Manager and one of the founders of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, a Cambodian Urban NGO. He previously worked with the Urban Resource Centre and graduated from the Royal University Fine Art in Architecture.

RECENT flooding has been explained by most media outlets and public officials as the result of particularly heavy rains, which is true; however, placing all of the blame on the weather amounts to an overly simplistic and somewhat fatalistic explanation of why Phnom Penh is once again bearing the economic burden of rising water levels during the rainy season.

A more important discussion that is often ignored in news reports on the pending threats or immediate cost of damages is how Phnom Penh can curb the impact of floods in the future. After all, cities and their residents do not necessarily have to stand by and watch as natural forces disrupt their lives and ruin their homes. In fact, allowing this to happen year in and year out amounts to a failure in city planning and points to a lack of resources needed to build an infrastructure that might support Phnom Penh as it tries to become a truly modern urban centre capable of providing protection to property developers and potential residents.

To understand the current problem, a quick review of the history and geography of Phnom Penh is needed. City officials have been working to mitigate the impact of flooding for nearly a century, and in areas such as Tuol Kork and Boung Keng Kong, where infrastructure was put in place before significant building occurred, they were highly successful. Residents in these areas also benefit from their elevation, which is obviously part of the reason that investments were made in these places. Unfortunately, many of the populations who are currently most affected by the floods live in low lying parts of the city, and reducing the deleterious impact of flooding on their economic and physical health is by no means futile.

There are structural solutions to the problems that currently exist in Phnom Penh, but they require a level of investment much higher than the $19 million that Japan invested in flood management between 2007-2010. Perhaps more significantly, specific investments are needed in poor, urban populations who have recently found it hard to stay in their homes, let alone get support to improve their livelihood.

The first step to solving the problem would be a massive improvement to the system of dams and pumps that surrounds the city, much of which has been unchanged since it was built in the 1970s. These pumps, in tandem with a massive storage tank under the riverside that stretches from Psar Cha to the north to the gardens by Chaktomok conference hall to the south, are able to manage routine levels of rainwater, but become ineffective and overflow when heavy rains hit.

Not only do the current pumps need to be improved, there needs to be more pumping stations built to give water an escape route. In the past the city was surrounded by marshes and rice fields that allowed the natural absorption of water, but over time, this natural means of flood control has been destroyed as they have been filled to make way for the development that is characteristic of urban sprawl. There is also a higher population density, which means more water is inevitably going into the system. Together, these factors demand purposeful planning that will be crucial to the future of Phnom Penh.

Although most people do not know it exists, the dam that surrounds the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and its associated infrastructure of pipes and canals throughout the city, is essential to efforts to stop flooding. If the dams on the outside of the city are not able to pump out the water, the people on the inside will suffer the consequences.

Since the first dam was built around a relatively small group of urban settlements around Wat Phnom during French colonial rule, urban planners and city officials have recognized the importance of a comprehensive system to push water out of Phnom Penh during the rainy season and have overhauled the entire system twice as the city has expanded. The cost to urban life, which relies on passable streets and the ability of the ground to absorb water to function, is simply too great to ignore any longer.

It is obvious to anyone who understands Phnom Penh’s infrastructure that the need to significantly update the drainage system has once again come. Japan’s assistance has helped the problem some, but it isn’t enough. The city needs more money, and as Hun Sen pointed out in a recent speech, the burgeoning population needs to help out and stop throwing trash into the already overworked system. A holistic effort needs to be made and as long as people passively blame the weather instead of the city’s infrastructure, something that can actually be changed, the city’s storm water problems will continue.


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