The force of urbanization in Cambodia is unceasing, but little is being done by the government to accommodate for this undue strain on the country’s resources, which is felt mainly by the urban poor, UN officials said at a Monday news conference to mark World Habitat Day.
According to preliminary data from the 2008 census, 19.5 percent of Cambodia’s approximately 13.4 million people live in urban areas, with half that population concentrated in Phnom Penh. This number is up from the 1998 census, which recorded 15 percent of Cambodians living in urban areas.
Urban growth is occurring at an alarming rate of 4.9 percent over the population’s annual growth rate, which is already high, at 1.8 percent.
UN projections put Cambodia’s urban population at 22.8 percent in 2010—that’s 3.5 million people, 1.7 million of whom will be concentrated in Phnom Penh. By 2020, the urban population is expected to reach 29.6 percent, or 5.4 million, with 2.5 million in the capital city.
Despite these mounting numbers—which describe a situation that is in no way unique to Cambodia—UN officials said there is little being done in Cambodia to account for the rapid pace of urbanization.
The UN’s Human Settlements Program, or Habitat, estimates urban poor communities constitute 30 percent of Phnom Penh—which has an estimated population of 1,325,700.
“This is a sign to give the indication or warn the government and other partners that we have to prepare and plan our city well,” Cambodia’s UN Habitat program manager Someathrith Din said.
Someathrith Din focused on the disproportionate development of Phnom Penh, where the gap between rich and poor is widening, as well as the fact that little heed is given to the poor when making development decisions.
“When development is taking place, they just want to move the poor out…. You cannot just develop your city, one part, one component, the rich, while the poor are left behind,” he said.
Someathrith Din said many urban poor communities are suitable for an onsite upgrade that would allow denizens to stay put rather than be evicted. Communities deemed more suitable for relocation need to be involved in the decision-making process and given time to mobilize their resources, he said.
According to the Housing Rights Task Force, there are currently 15 unlawful evictions ongoing in Phnom Penh.
Yap Kioe Sheng, chief of poverty reduction at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, who is based in Bangkok, said at the conference that urbanization can’t be stopped, nor can it be ignored.
“Cambodia needs to develop answers to the problem of urbanization…. At the moment, there is no plan to ensure that the poor have a place to live. There is very little ur-ban planning in Cambodia,” he said.
Local authorities have no framework to govern development decisions, Yap Kioe Sheng said. Quick and haphazard solutions are unlikely to be suitable for the populations that are almost always moved as a result of development, he said.
“Now it is all adhoc—and that is disastrous because the private developers always win. So, we need to develop policies,” he said.
Moving forward, UN officials advocated for a shift in development strategy away from investors toward planners, as well as for government to simply make it a priority.
“You need also to set aside land for use by the poor…which is something that doesn’t come with the market, only with political commitment,” Yap Kioe Sheng said.
Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, deputy director-general of the Land Management Ministry’s general department of land management and urban planning, said by telephone Monday evening that he couldn’t comment on how local authorities handle development on a case-by-case basis, but that on the policy level there has been considerable progress made to include the urban poor.
In more than 100 villages nationwide there is a participatory planning method in place, he said, in which all stakeholders, regardless of income, have a say in how their communities are developed.
“Regardless of your income, you will have a voice,” he said, adding that this policy has been in effect for a few years now and he considers it successful.
Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema, Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong and Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun could not be reached Monday, but CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap contested the charge that the government is doing little to include the urban poor.
“I don’t agree that the government does not take into account the urban poor,” he said, pointing out that the government takes pains to focus on poverty reduction by building roads, schools and hospitals.
“We have only one bow; we cannot shoot three rabbits at once,” he said.
Cheam Yeap said policy within Cambodia needs to be balanced, which does not mean only focusing on the poor, but also including protections for investors.
“We think of balance first. The law covers all, not only citizens, but the law protects all including investors,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)