As money has flooded into Phnom Penh in the past few years, so have legions of rural poor who take up low-paying jobs servicing the needs of the wealthy.
With fickle farming conditions in the countryside and a deficit of basic services, many in the provinces see escaping to the city, where an influx of foreign investment means employment is more plentiful, as a more attractive option.
But, unable to afford proper housing, many of these migrants end up living in informal settlements where dozens of ramshackle dwellings are squeezed together—often without proper access to water, power or sanitation.
According to a new report from the NGO People in Need, due to be officially launched next week, children are among the worst affected by these poor living conditions.
A survey of more than 400 households across Phnom Penh, conducted by People in Need in collaboration with Unicef earlier this year, showed that 35.6 percent of children aged 6 months to 5 years old were underweight and 29.1 percent had stunted growth.
The results of the survey, detailed in the Multiple Indicator Assessment of the Urban Poor report, also found that up to 16 percent of pregnant women were undernourished, putting them at risk of having low birth weight babies, and almost three-quarters of young children were reported as having fallen ill in the previous two weeks.
Piotr Sasin, country director for People in Need, called the findings—which also showed that one in 10 households had no access to any kind of sanitation—“alarming.”
Although the survey did not find any children suffering from severe malnutrition, Mr. Sasin said that when Unicef workers returned to some of the households in the rainy season, they found evidence of exacerbated nutrition problems as a result of higher instances of water-borne diseases, particularly diarrhea.
“There’s a perception that the urban population is much better off than the rest of Cambodia, which is true to some extent,” but these figures should act as a call for action, he said.
Mr. Sasin added that a lack of public services, sanitation and food security in urban poor communities had left them particularly vulnerable to diseases and environmental health problems.
“We have very rich people creating little islands of prosperity around the others who provide services…but unfortunately the infrastructure and social services are very limited,” he said.
“That’s not to say there’s no improvement, but it’s very limited.”
According to Unicef, Phnom Penh’s population doubled between 1998 and 2008. And a 2013 study from urban housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut found that there are 33,600 urban poor families in Phnom Penh—and numbers are likely to keep increasing, putting more pressure on public services and the families trying to access them.
Ee Sarom, executive director of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said authorities needed to provide better health and education services in the provinces, as well as job creation and support for agriculture to stem the tide of migrants to the capital.
“I think if the government doesn’t have any clear plans or political commitment, in the coming years there will be more people coming into the city to look for jobs,” Mr. Sarom said.
“The impact will be more urban poor communities in the city, drainage problems, traffic jams, more unemployment…the city [being unable to] supply enough water to the people and more vagrants.”