Sitting in a wooden chair under a large umbrella after Monday’s afternoon rain storm, the Royal Palace guard pointed at the water rushing along the street at his post near the palace wall.
“With my job, I have stood here for about three years,” he said. “This is just the first rain. The water will go through.”
A drain quickly swallowed the oncoming water.
“Now is not the problem. The water runs fast. When the high [river] water comes up, you will see the problem,” the guard said.
Each year, Phnom Penh’s streets run with rain water, sometimes swelling until they don’t look like streets at all, but like rivers. And although some people, like the guard, don’t believe that the streets will ever properly drain, officials in City Hall believe that they will.
With help from Japan and the Asian Development Bank, the city plans to have the drainage problem solved in the next two years, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said Monday.
It is a two-step plan, with the first phase being completed in less than one year.
The key to the city’s plan lies in the main sewage canal that runs from Sihanouk Boulevard through Prampi Makara and Chamkar Mon districts, parallel to Monivong Boulevard. Once clogged with raw sewage and trash, the canal is being replaced, thanks to an $8 million Asian Development Bank loan. The project is part of a broader plan to connect houses to sub-canals that will be completed later.
It’s a dirty job, set on the shoulders of Lee Jae Chul, project director for the Shinsung Corp. Lee, a cheerful man with light brown eyes, has put his company waist-deep into the rehabilitation of the city’s drainage problem.
Section by section, his crews have had to move along the length of the old canal, tapping in metal pilings to seal the canal, re-routing sludge from the work area, then setting to work on laying sand and concrete for a new canal that will drain faster.
Phnom Penh sits in an area shaped like a bowl, so during the rainy season, water leaks in from all directions, causing streets to flood, sewers to back up and residents to complain.
But this bowl-shape also tilts slightly to the south. And with the right encouragement, run-off, drainage and sewage can be funneled out of the city to the lip of the bowl at Boeng Trabek lake at the southern edge of the city. From there, it can be pumped over the Street 271 dike, and into a vast swamp.
“We are ahead of schedule,” Lee said Monday.
About 75 percent is fixed, and the pumping station is scheduled for an operational test in February. A fully operational pumping station will have the first drainage problem solved by next March, Lee said.
The afternoon rain showers recently have served as a pre-test trial run, he said.
“No one has complained [of flooding], so the canals are working,” he said.
Residents interviewed along the canal Monday morning had little to complain about.
Shop owner Bun Leang Sim said his business had improved 10 percent since late April, after a bridge was constructed over the canal connecting him to his neighbors on the west bank.
Vann Yong, 60, who has lived next to the sewage canal since 1980, said that while she expected it to work at first, her neighbors will likely continue to use it for trash disposal, clogging it again.