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Insights and Analysis

Water Festival Highlights Phnom Penh’s Mounting Waste Management Problems

November 5, 2014

By Jon Morales

Every year as the monsoon rains in Cambodia ease and the Mekong River’s flow subsides, the largest lake in Cambodia, the Tonle Sap, begins its annual drain of the Central Cambodian flood plain. The Tonle Sap is a unique lake/river system in the world, twice a year its flow changes directions in response to the rainy season and the waxing and waning strength of the mighty Mekong.

Every year in November, Cambodians mark the occasion of the rivers’ reversal with a water festival, known as Bon Om Touk, in the capital Phnom Penh where the two rivers meet. The festival draws over a million people to the city and some estimates place the number as high as two million, effectively doubling the city’s existing population and straining much of the already overburdened public infrastructure of the city to near breaking point.

Phnom Penh Water Festival

Every year in November, Cambodians mark the occasion of the rivers’ reversal with a water festival, known as Bon Om Touk, in the capital Phnom Penh where the two rivers meet. The festival draws over a million people to the city. Photo/Flickr user Daphne Chui

The most visible of the strained public services is solid waste collection. Disposing of garbage from the streets is a challenge for any municipality holding large events, but the effect is even more pronounced in developing countries like Cambodia. Phnom Penh’s existing solid waste management system already struggles under its daily obligations due to the administrative expansion of Phnom Penh, an outdated revenue structure, low quality and congested roads to the landfill, and a weak monitoring mechanism.

During the water festival these problems are compounded as trash collection workers stop working for the holiday. The franchise trash collector, CINTRI, estimates that it will need an extra 500 workers to deal with the extra influx of trash during the holiday, but instead will likely face a shortage of workers below their normal labor force, despite offering pay incentives. With no labor reserve force, the city’s trash problems are almost certain to significantly worsen during the holidays.

The temporary crisis provoked by the holiday is a symptom of the underlying problems in solid waste management in Phnom Penh. While the city government has recently made improving trash collection a top priority of the city, the facts remain: overall revenue in the system is very low, with no government financial support for trash collection, and no facilities to recover value from the waste and add revenue. Collection fees from residents have remained static since 2003, and the base fee for waste collection is $1/month. Biogas, composting, converting waste to energy, and refuse derived fuels may all be commercially feasible projects in Phnom Penh, where up to 60 percent of the solid waste generated by the city is composed of organic matter. However, no major investment, either public or private, has ever been initiated.

With no waste value recovery facility in place, 90 percent of the trash goes directly to a quickly filling landfill. The landfill may not last more than five years at the current rates of trash generation and population growth and alternative sites for future landfills will be farther from the city center in areas that are becoming more expensive due to rising land prices, increasing collection costs and creating wider environmental impact. While a major investment in a waste-value recovery facility would not magically solve the city’s mounting problems with solid waste, a facility that can treat 500 to 1000 tons per day would go a long way to easing environmental and financial burdens of the overall city. As the city, and its trash, grows each year, the need for an environmentally and commercially sustainable facility will grow increasingly urgent.

Jon Morales is a program manager for The Asia Foundation’s Urban Services Program in Cambodia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.


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