Even as excitement mounts over a development project designed to make the Water Festival a more pleasurable experience for thousands of visitors, international consultants are warning that portions of it might not survive the flood season.
Local work crews are putting the finishing touches on the first phase of a major municipal flood-control, landfill and beautification project on the riverfront. Meanwhile, the Mekong River Commission has prepared a detailed environmental and engineering study of the same area, which the city has not used.
City and commission officials say they wish to cooperate in later phases of the project.
But a study prepared for the commission warns that until now, the project has been undertaken without the preparatory study and testing that is customary for such projects in more developed countries. Engineers familiar with the project say privately that the job has been rushed to completion in time for the Water Festival.
The project has captured the imagination of city officials like municipal Deputy Governor Trak Thai Sieng, who envisions families strolling along walkways with the river on one side and a ribbon of garden on the other.
“They call Phnom Penh the ‘Pearl of Asia,’ and the pearl will only be restored if we improve that walkway, so that walking along it is like walking along the Seine in front of Notre Dame, or the lake of Geneva in Switzerland,” he said.
The project calls for cutting back the Chroy Changva peninsula to its 1920s dimensions, so that the Royal Palace is again across from the junction of the rivers. New concrete floodwalls have been installed and greenery has been planted on the peninsula. The peninsula is a viewing area for the Water Festival and will be the site of a new exhibit hall planned for the Asean regional meeting scheduled for January 2003.
On the west bank of the Bassac river, dirt from an island across the channel has been used to create a 20-meter-wide strip of land stretching roughly from the Nexus Casino barge south to the Russian Embassy. Walkways and gardens are being installed stretching from the casino down to the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel.
The filled-in area will be owned by the city and protected from land speculation, Trak Thai Sieng said. This guarantees that residents will be able to enjoy the waterfront in the future, he said.
Hotels and housing are envisioned for the beautified waterfront. The biggest project so far is the $100 million Nexus Naga complex, scheduled for completion next year, which will replace the existing gambling boat.
Trak Thai Sieng said the project will cost “a few million” dollars in municipal funds. He said he could not be more specific on the budget because the project is not yet complete. The city is saving money by using local contractors and by sharing costs with landowners whose property will be improved by the project, he said.
City officials have been discussing the project for more than15 years, Trak Thai Sieng said. But by the standards of most major city development projects, this one has moved at a lightning pace, with the city announcing the plans last December and commencing work in February.
City officials were eager to begin due to concerns over the devastating effects of last year’s floods, and also over the growing number of squatters along the waterfront, Trak Thai Sieng said. City officials also wish to beautify the waterfront in time for the building of the exhibit hall.
Realizing the importance of the river junction at Phnom Penh to the ecology of the entire region, the Mekong River Commission had also long planned a comprehensive study of how to develop the area, river commission engineers said. But it did not receive sufficient funding until 1999, with the Japanese government as the source. The study began in April 2000.
The city announced its plans soon after the river commission’s study got underway, taking the commission’s engineers by surprise. Quickly incorporating the city’s plans into their study, they found the project would have a net positive effect on issues such as flood protection and erosion.
“Luckily for [the city, the plans], helped somehow,” MRC Navigation Program Manager Lieven Geerinck said. “Because we were headed on a collision course.”
But the study, written for the MRC by the Danish engineering firm DHI Water and Environment, also found danger signs. It contained photos showing new embankments at both Chroy Changva and the Bassac that had already failed.
“It appears that the slope protection is insufficient and that proper compaction of the soils has not been made,” the study reported. “It can therefore be feared that significant parts of the newly constructed embankments will slide into the river during the next flood season.”
The extent of the failures, if any, will become evident after the flood season ends.
“During high flood stage the embankments will be soaked with water. This water will drain during falling stage and create soil instabilities in the embankments. Thus the failure of the embankments are mostly to take place during the receding flood,” the study states.
DHI engineers say that soil testing is necessary before deciding on the design of reinforced embankments. One consulting engineer familiar with the project said that the city failed to do testing even after some of the embankments failed. The city hurriedly drove sheeting into the ground to reinforce the banks on the Chroy Changva peninsula. But without testing the soil at various depths, city workers could not have known how deep to drive the sheeting, the engineer said.
Embankment failures could temporarily damage aquatic wildlife along the embankment, the study said. More dramatic cracks or slides could damage sidewalks, gardens or other development along the waterfront, or even endanger people walking or climbing on the riverfront, commission engineers said.
DHI engineers said the city’s plan lacked customary planning measures, such as an environmental impact report.
“No impact assessment appears to have been conducted for the Municipality Project and no detailed design has been prepared,” the study says. “The implementation approach seems to be ‘learning by doing.’”
Trak Thai Sieng acknowledged that some embankment failures are likely. But he said such failures are typical of new flood control projects and are inexpensive to repair. He said the city would require more funds to install more stable embankments along the Bassac.
In the meantime, he said, the flood levels have been raised at both Chroy Changva and along the Bassac, saving the Chroy Changva from flooding this year and decreasing the need for sandbagging.
The current project is not ideal, he acknowledged, but said it creates a “manageable situation.”
“The more we waited, the more we faced problems with squatters and uncontrolled development in the area…” he said. “We can solve the immediate and short-term needs, like a lack of entertainment areas, a lack of greenery in the city and traffic congestion [at the riverfront].
Or, he said, “we can wait 20 years more, if you want. It’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of political will.”
Work on the next phase of the project, stretching down to the Monivong Bridge, is scheduled to begin after the end of the flood season.
City engineers have signaled a willingness to listen to the river commission’s suggestions, most recently by attending a seminar late last month presenting the study results.
But more money for stronger flood protection along the Bassac may be some time in coming. Having constructed a model for river flows and suggested some measures to stabilize the banks, the MRC is now beginning a second study that will include soil tests, detailed design plans, and a cost-benefit analysis measures that commission officials believe are needed before any major development project is undertaken.
Only at that point, commission engineers say, will the commission be prepared to ask for outside funding for development on the riverbanks. The second study will take about eight months, commission officials said.
By that time, the second phase of the city’s project is scheduled to be well underway.