Notes from the Field

In Phnom Penh, When it Rains it Floods

October 15, 2010

I arrived in Cambodia during the dry season in February. A few months later in May, the rainy season was just around the corner. Like many places, the passing of the year there is defined by these seasonal transitions. Cambodia’s rice farmers rely on rainwater to feed their crops, and Cambodia’s fisherman anticipate the natural shift in the Mekong River:  as water levels increase from greater rainfall, the river reverses direction. Flowing from north to south during the dry season, the Mekong then begins to flow south to north during the rainy season – a unique characteristic of the river that contributes to its rich biodiversity and fish populations.  These seasonal changes govern the livelihoods of Cambodia’s rural communities.

In Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh, these naturally occurring weather patterns also have a significant impact on its urban residents. Phnom Penh is a mix of gridded paved road, dirt alleyways and potholes, and a traffic culture that goes with the flow – or against it. The streets are filled with a bustle of motorbikes, cars, street vendors, and cyclists. When heavy rains set in, however, this activity comes to a halt, and there is no choice but to watch and wait until the rising water levels subside.  During a typical rainstorm, water rises a few feet and the brown, murky water makes it difficult to navigate the edges of the sidewalk or potholes hidden beneath. Storefront owners have to act quickly to move their goods to drier areas, restaurants close, and business meetings are cancelled as people are forced to stay put.

The culprit is the city’s drainage system, where debris and trash often clog the outlets. The Phnom Penh government has recently taken measures to address the problem by increasing the frequency of trash collection, and informing neighbors on the importance of proper waste management. The flooded streets also carry human waste, chemicals, and toxins that threaten human health. While the city’s population adapts to the conditions that the rainy season brings by waiting for the water to drain–about one to two hours after the rain stops–while donning massive brightly covered ponchos, or simply wading through the water, it is nonetheless disruptive to the flow of daily business and activity.

Phnom Penh does, however, effectively supply the majority of its population with usable, piped water. This infrastructure was built with development assistance from the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, and the Japanese and Norwegian governments, and is managed by the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority. Such immediate access to water is an invaluable asset for the city’s growing population, with an annual population growth rate of 3.2 percent and urbanization rate of 4.6 percent.

Cambodia’s economy is also growing – from 2004 to 2007, it grew approximately 10 percent per year, although the financial crisis has slowed its growth over the last few years.  For a country that is competing regionally for new industries, tourism, and business development, effective water systems that buttress efficient transportation is of particular importance to a growing economy.

Water resources in Cambodia are quite vulnerable to changes in seasonal weather patterns. While the country’s rural and urban populations experience these changes differently, both are keenly aware of these shifts, as their daily routines, health, and livelihoods are affected. Moreover, with the projected impacts of climate change, this vulnerability is only expected to increase. Effective water governance and urban planning, climate change adaptation measures, and appropriate infrastructure development offer the opportunity to contribute to the development of a progressive Cambodia.

Lisa Hook is a Program Officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at lhook@asiafound.org.

Read about Blog Action Day’s 2010 focus on water.

View all posts by Lisa Hook | Bio

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