Phnom Penh is, in fact, two cities, according to UN Habitat Program Manager Someathrith Din.
One half enjoys the finer resources the city has to offer, and the other is deprived of even the most basic.
This isn’t a new story, nor is it one confined to Cambodia. But it is a story in which the stakes are being raised the world over as cities grow to encompass more than half of the world’s 3.3 billion people next year—and the slums within them expand accordingly.
In Cambodia, where the urban rate of growth is 4.9 percent, according to the UN Population Fund, “every day the number [of slums] is growing,” said Someathrith Din.
The truth is that nobody quite knows how many people comprise Phnom Penh’s urban poor, though everyone agrees it’s a sizable chunk.
Part of the challenge lies in accurately counting informal dwellers and migrant workers given the tendency for this segment of the population to move around and keep to themselves, said UN Population Fund Program Officer Christine Chan.
“[They] may not reside in fixed locations or may not want to give out information,” she said.
Someathrith Din believes slum inhabitants and the urban poor comprise nearly half of the city’s more than 1.5 million people, though Sok Visal at the Urban Poor Development Fund—a mixed government and non-governmental organization—said a more realistic estimate would be around 30 to 40 percent.
Mann Chhoeun, Phnom Penh deputy governor in charge of poverty reduction, said he believes the figure to be much lower, less than 25 percent.
“It is going down more. We are trying very hard,” he said of the municipality’s efforts to better local slums.
Regardless, it’s a population that is difficult to quantify, with problems that are difficult to solve—especially when the vast majority of donor funds are being funneled in the opposite direction.
Donors see the statistic that 85 percent of Cambodians are farmers and jump to the conclusion that rural areas are where funds are most needed—but they’re wrong, said Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Land Management’s general department of land management and urban planning.
“A rural center cannot upgrade itself,” he said, and instead depends on linkages with urban areas to improve the country’s overall economic situation.
Urban areas provide opportunities for the children of farmers to seek employment outside of the agricultural sector. They also provide markets to sell and process the goods produced at farms.
Some migration from rural to urban areas is a good thing, a sign that a country is prospering; but in Cambodia, urban migrants only have three options—Phnom Penh, Siem Reap town and Sihanoukville—where resources are strained due to a surplus of migrants, Beng Hong Socheat Khemro said.
“It is a situation that encourages unnecessary rural-to-urban migration,” he said, and leads to the haphazard formation of slums in those select urban areas.
The key question is “how to help our provincial and district centers, which are supposed to play an urban role, effectively play that role,” he said, adding that the answer, he believes, is to maximize the effect of existing economic centers to spur growth in nearby provincial towns.
In the meantime, according to Meas Kimseng, coordinator for the housing rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, existing slums should be upgraded if possible before eviction is introduced as an option—if for no other reason than that most evictions don’t work.
In an effort to quickly clear land for development, Phnom Penh authorities have hastily relocated dozens of communities to areas without even the most basic infrastructure during the last decade.
But the majority of the 15,831 families who have been moved out of the capital’s poorest neighborhoods to one of 41 relocation sites on the outskirts of the city have returned to the city center only to wind up in a new slum, said Meas Kimseng.
Roitha Yong, 20, and her family are one example. She used to live near Preah Monivong Hospital but was forcibly relocated last year along with 168 families to Ang Snuol district in Kandal province, roughly 35 km outside of the city center.
“It’s so far, so my family moved…. We had no choice,” she said, adding that there was no potable water at the site, few opportunities to make money in that area and the location made it difficult for her to get to school. Her family is now located around 20 km closer to the city center in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey commune—a garment production hub.
“Now there are only 14 or 15 families left,” she added, saying that only the poorest of her neighbors remained.
Mann Chhoeun said that most people are better off at relocation sites than they were in slums.
“They changed from landless people to having property,” he said, adding that only “professional squatters” abandon their relocation sites in favor of slums back in the city center.
Mann Chhoeun acknowledged that there is some truth in what critics say of relocation sites, but said the municipality is learning from its mistakes.
“Please look at our effort. To criticize is easy…but to do is hard,” he said. “We take it as a mirror to check ourselves.”
There have been a couple successful relocation stories in recent years—notably the residents around Olympic Stadium who were relocated about 5 km away from city center to Apiwat Meanchey village in Meanchey district in 1998.
“They were allowed to choose the place by themselves and it is nearer to city center,” said Meas Kimseng.
“If the slum area is not suitable for upgrading, then involve the people in the relocating…. In Apiwat Meanchey, they gave people enough time to mobilize their own resources and external resources,” Someathrith Din of UN Habitat said, adding that relocating people successfully demands patience and persistence.
“It’s a process that takes a few years,” he said, which is generally not conducive to the quick turnaround desired by those standing to profit from development deals.
(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann)