A string of fires in Phnom Penh squatter villages over the last few months has raised new questions about fire hazards the shanty-town villages pose, as well as the plight of urban poor, activists and officials say.
Although the city and NGOs have not compiled a list of the five or 10 most fire-prone villages or facilities in Phnom Penh, they agree squatter villages undoubtedly pose the greatest risk of fires.
“It’s the very nature of a squatter village to be a fire hazard,” said Peter Swan, an adviser to the city’s Poverty Reduction Program and a UN-Habitat official. “People don’t expect to live [in squatter villages] for a long time, so they do not pay for good, safe building materials like bricks or concrete.”
Likewise, the narrow streets, poor access to water and dense population make squatter villages dangerous, Urban Resource Center staff member Claire Liousse said.
More than 2,500 houses were destroyed and an estimated 20,000 people were left homeless in November when fires razed squatter camps behind the Bassac Theater and along the Bassac river. Likewise, a fire at the Lok Tanpa rooftop squatter village in Daun Penh district left at least 1,050 people homeless Tuesday.
While the fate of the remaining dozens of rooftop squatter villages in the city—as well as the Boreikila squatter camp in Prampi Makara district—awaits to be seen, activists have pressed the government to step up safety warnings to all squatter camps about the dangers posed by the villages.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, while expressing his sympathy for the plight of the squatters, said Wednesday the city has neither the land nor the resources to relocate the squatters from the villages. With the exception radio broadcasts warning people of the dangers of fires during the dry season, the city has not advised the squatters of the fire hazards in squatter camps, the governor added.
“We do not have a formal plan to deal with the squatter camps right now,” Chea Sophara said. “We cannot move them off because we don’t have the money, and if we tried to move them off forcibly, it would cause a huge conflict.”
Warning squatters of the fire dangers or relocating them are just two options, activists say. Swan, along with other urban poverty experts, has been advocating giving the squatters tenure and land rights.
“The residents in squatter villagers are temporary and expect to be removed—forcibly or through assistance—by the city. Giving them tenure would give the squatters the incentive to invest in a more stable form of housing and they would build their homes out of concrete and use tin roofs rather than wood or grass,” Swan said.
“If there is more security of ownership, you will see what happens to these houses,” he added.
While the city or NGOs could provide squatters with tenure or relocation sites, the fact remains that many people, either through economic circumstance or personal choice, choose to stay in squatter camps—regardless of the risks, activists say.
Nuon Vany, 40, who lost his house in Tuesday’s Lok Tanpa fire, said he would gladly return to the rooftop squatter village on the block between streets 49 and 51 because of its location and its proximity to his children’s school.
Another Lok Tanpa resident, who declined to be named, said she would stay at the site because she had no money to move.
“I know there could be another fire, and I will move if the city gives us another place to live,” she said.
By contrast, garment factories in Phnom Penh—where there are perhaps the largest concentration of workers at any given time—are mostly safe from fires, International Labor Organization Technical Adviser Lejo Sibbel said. Garment factory safety was raised in April after a fire in a Bangladeshi garment factory killed 52.
The ILO surveyed 30 garment factories in Phnom Penh and found they have adequate fire extinguishers and emergency fire exits, Sibbel said.