As bare-chested construction workers labor in the hot sun to erect new buildings and homes in Phnom Penh’s sprawling environs, lawmakers are now working to make sure the buildings don’t collapse.
The Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction—with the help of experts from the French government—is preparing the country’s first real building codes.
Among many other regulations, the code will institutionalize the metric system, mandate cement consistency and specify how to build structures in water—something that would’ve come in handy to those who built the section of wall along Phnom Penh’s riverfront that collapsed into the Tonle Sap River last summer.
“The ministry wants a building code that everyone can read,” Pen Sophal, the ministry’s Cabinet chief, said Wednesday.
The National Assembly must pass the code when it is finished. Officials expect this to happen in the forthcoming government.
But right now, contractors are supposed to receive a construction license from either the municipality, the district or the ministry, depending on the size of the project.
But data from the past five years, released by the ministry last week, reveal unlicensed construction is widespread.
From 1999 through 2003 only 53 percent of construction projects across the nation were licensed, a ministry report found. In Phnom Penh 1,392, or about 35 percent, of the 3,931 construction projects were unlicensed.
“The reason for the low quality of construction was because of illegal construction and companies that have no construction plans and low technical experience,” Minister of Land Management Im Chhun Lim said recently. This year the ministry plans to focus on improving the safety and quality of construction projects, he said.
Government inspectors do not check whether a company has the skills to construct a building safely, said Yos Chhom Narady, deputy director of the municipality’s land management and construction department. Rather, the government relies on the company’s own claims that they are qualified.
“The department has no experts to check safety and quality,” Yos Chhom Narady said.
Mong Reththy, president of the Mong Reththy Group, has an unorthodox method for choosing construction companies for his company’s projects.
“If I offer a bribe to a construction company and it doesn’t accept the bribe then that means the construction is of good quality and is safe and legal,” he said. “If the company quickly takes the bribe, then it’s not safe and illegal.”
The only building code that exists is a general subdecree passed in 1997 that is not widely enforced. It stemmed from the 1994 Law on Organization [and] Management of Territory, Urbanization and Construction, which was written to give rights to private land owners after the Khmer Rouge regime, when many of the original owners of property were killed and their houses and land occupied by new owners in the 1980s.
Vann Molyvann, the former minister of land management who helped draft the 1997 subdecree, sees the prevalence of unlicensed construction as one component of the city’s uncontrolled sprawl.
“It is absolutely necessary to rethink the development of Phnom Penh,” Van Molyvann, who also designed Independence Monument, the Council of Ministers building and the Olympic Stadium, said this week. “It’s not possible to let such trends continue or we will have a city that is unmanageable.”
Many contractors do not need licenses because they pay off government officials, Vann Molyvann said.
“You can get any permit you want” through corruption, he said.
The city’s current anarchic development leaves the city—especially squatter areas along the Bassac River—vulnerable to floods and fires, Vann Molyvann said. Along with measures to protect Phnom Penh from floods, the government should also implement a master development plan for the city before a projected population explosion hits in ten years or so.
“I am very, very pessimistic” about the city’s future, he said.