Chhim Chanton and his family were savoring a breezy Phnom Penh morning this week, chopping vegetables on the shady cement slab in front of their home off Street 163.
For the first time in 22 years, the air didn’t stink of sewage from the drainage ditch that runs past their house.
“We’ve lived here since 1979, and you get used to smelling sewage,” said family member Kong Samann, 53, as she rocked a child. “But when the canal is finished, it’s not supposed to flood anymore.”
She pointed to a discolored line on the wall, 35 centimeters above the floor. That’s how high the water rose last year; the house has flooded every year since 1993.
“It smelled really bad, and it left the place coated with black sludge,” she said with a grimace.
The family’s odor-free idyll is only temporary. The black, fetid water that normally runs past their home has been diverted into an underground pipe while workers complete a new concrete canal, part of an ambitious plan to improve drainage.
But when the canal is done, raw sewage will once more mingle with rainwater as it runs through the heart of Phnom Penh and into holding basins in lakes south of the city.
Phnom Penh has embarked on a number of projects to improve drainage, from the canals being built with grants from Japan and loans from the Asian Development Bank to clearing an archaic sewer system that dates from the French colonial period.
When the $13 million canal project is finished next year, it should reduce rainy season flooding in some parts of the city.
Phnom Penh’s drainage problems aren’t surprising, given that it’s a flat city in the middle of a huge flood plain in a country whose watery heart—the Tonle Sap lake—quadruples in size every wet season.
Originally, the land was dotted with lakes and marshes connected by waterways that grew and shrank depending on the season.
Nouv Saroeun, the director of the municipal sewer department, says one indicator is the number of places that include “boeng”—the Khmer word for lake—in their names: Boeng Kak, Boeng Salang, Boeng Keng Kang.
Over the years, people have filled in boggy areas to build houses and roads, sharply limiting drainage routes in times of heavy rainfall. That‘s been compounded by squatters building thousands of shacks over lakes and marshes, which pollutes the water with sewage and fills the waterways with trash.
Nouv Saroeun is in charge of an army of about 500 men working to clear the sewers. He says some of the pipes are more than 60 years old and in tough shape; pipes near Phsar Chas and Wat Phnom had to be replaced.
But pipes near Phsar Thmei, Boeng Keng Kang and O’Russei are still functional, he says, an assessment echoed by the 15-man crew working this week to clear Street 118, east of Phsar Thmei.
Chan Hoeurn, the 51-year-old crew chief, was soaked nearly to his shoulders. His t-shirt and shorts might once have been khaki, but now were virtually black.
“These pipes are in good shape,” he said, dropping to the ground to demonstrate how he crawls along through the pipes, cleans the sides with wire scrapers and loads the sludge into black rubber buckets.
Crews haul the sludge to the surface, where it is collected in drying pens made of sandbags. City inspectors come by and pay the men based on how much they have removed; one cubic meter of sludge is worth about 3,000 riel (about $0.75) if it’s soupy up to 5,000 riel (about $1.25) riel if it’s solid.
Chan Hoeurn says his crew averages about 10 cubic meters a day. Wearing no protective gear, they contort and twist themselves to clear pipes that range in diameter from half a meter to more than two meters, he said.
Despite their best efforts, it sometimes gets into their mouths. “This is the hardest work I have ever done—harder than farming, harder than construction,” he said.
The workers are frequently sick with colds and fevers and plagued by itchy skin, but most do not take time off. “If we don’t work, we don’t get paid,” Chan Hoeurn said.
The workers are grateful to have jobs. Chan Hoeurn’s whole crew is from Prey Veng province, where bad weather has made farming difficult.
Nouv Saroeun says the city is spending about $150,000 per year on sewer cleaning. So far, 33 roads have been finished, including major city thoroughfares such as Kampuchea Krom, Monivong, Monireth and Sihanouk boulevards. The goal is to finish 72 roads by the end of the dry season.
Theplan is to move rainy season stormwater to Boeng Trabek in the city’s southern quadrant, Boeng Tumpon in the southwest and Boeng Choeng Eck further south.
City planners want to keep two other lakes—Boeng Kak, behind the train station, and Boeng Peay, north of Tuol Kok—as natural holding basins. That means no development, and no sewage.
Cleaner sewers and new, deeper canals should mean the water moves along more quickly, reducing the amount of contaminated water that backs up and sloshes around city neighborhoods.
These are all temporary. measure. What the city really needs is a sewage treatment plant. A dual system that keeps wastewater separate from rainwater would also be nice, but that’s so expensive that cities in many developed nations still can’t afford it.
Despite several studies and proposals, a treatment plant remains a distant dream. A plant big enough to treat Phnom Penh’s sewage would cost “more than a hundred million dollars,” said one Western consultant to the municipal water authority.
He said the World Bank will decide soon whether to proceed with a $5 million pilot project to build a small sewage treatment facility, big enough to handle the waste from just one small area of the city.
The advantage to smaller treatment plants would be that wastewater would not have to be pumped from all over the city to one large plant for treatment. The disadvantage is that a number of small plants would be needed, and not everyone wants sewage treatment plants in their neighborhood.
In the meantime, consultant said that the only treatment the city’s sewage will get is the natural cleansing action of sunlight and other biological processes in the holding basins.