Posts by Author: Holly Robertson

The World’s Emptiest Airport Is a Red Flag

December 26, 2004, started out as a typical day for M.A. Sriyanyakanthi. A vegetable seller on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, she had set up her wares at a stall across from her husband’s at the Hambantota seaside.

“The day was poya day,” she said, referring to a lunar Buddhist holiday, “so everyone was wanting to go to the temple. I was sitting in my stall, and my husband said, ‘Get up and run.’ I made a joke, saying, ‘Why, do you want to fight?’” That’s when she saw the water. Sriyanyakanthi grabbed her purse and scale before getting to her feet. “The wave came and broke the sea wall, and I ran. When I got to the main road my purse fell. I left it and kept running.”

Like it did for most Sri Lankans, the Boxing Day Tsunami took Sriyanyakanthi by surprise. Earlier that morning, one of biggest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, displacing over seven cubic miles of water and unleashing a massive tsunami. Within 15 minutes, giant waves hit the surrounding islands, destroying villages and towns. But the lack of a warning system in the Indian Ocean meant that few had time to prepare, even though in many places it took hours for the deadly waves to make landfall.

The tsunami swept through coastal areas in the east and south of Sri Lanka, including Hambantota, an unremarkable district with a population of 660,000. Sriyanyakanthi lost track of her surroundings after she was swept away, and spent 11 months recuperating from a badly broken leg and other wounds. Altogether, 280,000 people died across 14 countries. This human toll was accompanied by destruction of infrastructure on a scale rarely inflicted by a natural disaster. In Hambantota alone, 30 percent of the so-called “old town” was washed away in the tsunami, including much of the main commercial area, according to government statistics. Thick mud, dredged up from the ocean floor, coated what was left of homes and businesses. Public transport ground to a standstill. Debris clogged the streets.

Normally, it might take decades for an insignificant section of a developing country like this to recover, but Hambantota’s infrastructure was rebuilt with astonishing speed. In fact, it was drastically expanded and enhanced, with slick-looking, highly modernized commercial and transport facilities that had never existed in pre-tsunami Hambantota. Today, a multi-lane highway connects the district to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, in the island’s west. A major commercial port, the second in the country, opened in 2010, while the nearby Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, also the country’s second, began operating in 2013. There is an international cricket stadium, a convention center, botanical gardens, and a new administration hub. In mostly rural Sri Lanka, Hambantota’s public facilities are rare flashes of state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line urban development.

But Hambatota’s breakneck buildout is an example of a high-risk model of urbanization being executed in developing countries, with sometimes disastrous consequences. The model is an outgrowth of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, a trillion-dollar plan to build cities and infrastructure — from highways to airports to hospitals — in countries around the world. In some cases, these China-exported construction booms are welcome, helping poorer nations acquire infrastructure that they could probably never afford to build on their own. But there have also been cases in which China’s enthusiasm to build, enabled by unscrupulous governments, has led to massive development that is not in the best interests of the country receiving it.

In 2017, the Sri Lankan government was forced to come up with a way to pull itself out of spiralling debt brought on by its foreign-built megaprojects. Economically, Sri Lanka is growing, but it has also been sinking deeper into debt and must repay a record $12.6 billion this year, in part because Hambantota’s gigantic port has been sitting virtually unused, as has the international airport down the road. Both were built with Chinese money.

To settle some of this debt, Sri Lanka ultimately signed over control of the port to China, which had financed the $1.5 billion project with loans. This momentous deal means that Beijing now controls another strategically important international port. There are now questions over whether the airport—another strain on Sri Lankan finances—will go the same way or, more likely, end up in the hands of India. All of which will have lasting geopolitical ramifications in a region where India and China are squaring up to gain influence.

For Hambantota’s residents, trapped in the middle of geopolitical maneuverings, the ambitious projects carried out in their town have meant dislocation, forcible resettlements, and a more uncertain future. Authorities are planning a 15,000-acre Special Economic Zone to attract factories and other investment, a sprawling development that would push farming families from their homes. Many fear the ramifications of China’s influence, too, which is likely to shape the urban landscape, from now into the future.

“The Landscape of Nowhere”

It’s no coincidence that former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa originally hails from Hambantota. An authoritarian leader who ruled the country with an iron fist for a decade beginning in 2005, Rajapaksa had a vision for the tsunami-struck town: that it would become the country’s “second capital” after Colombo, a grand ambition that just happened to dovetail perfectly with his desire to keep the local voting community on his side. “Consequently, there was no lack of funding and political will. It was the planners’, development specialists’, and building contractors’ dream,” writes urban planner Shalini Mariyathas, lead author of the paper, “What Development Has Done to a Town: Lessons from Hambantota, Sri Lanka.”

Mariyathas points out that, as a result of the deal, no other town in Sri Lanka has transformed so significantly since the country gained independence from the British in 1948. But the promise of positive change is “nowhere to be found,” she laments. “It has destroyed the sense of place, but without a substantive replacement. The new town center is represented in a well-designed, massive administration complex and an international convention hall built in the middle of nowhere. The highways dominate the landscape of nowhere.”

Construction of the expressway connecting Colombo to Mattala. According to urban planner Shalini Mariyathas, "The highways dominate the landscape of nowhere." (Photo by Priyan De Silva)

One of the most arid and remote areas of the country, in the early 2000s Hambantota was impoverished and sparsely populated. Fishing, agriculture, and salt production provided the main sources of income, and policymakers paid little attention to local people’s needs.

After the tsunami, however, all of that changed. Rajapaksa laid out his vision: Sri Lanka would become a “Wonder of Asia,” with Hambantota acting as a catalyst for accelerated economic growth. A massive infrastructure project, the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaska International Port, was slated to be one of the showpieces. Overseeing a ceremony in August 2010 to release water into a newly carved-out harbor basin, Rajapaksa reportedly told the gathered crowd that the port’s construction recalled the same feelings of pride and victory as the end of the three-decade civil war between separatist Tamil Tigers and the government in 2009. “We have dug into the earth, broken great rocks, overcome inland and foreign threats,” he said. “We have now entered the path to being the true Wonder of Asia.”

Around the same time, urban planners were hard at work. Hambantota district, then with a population of a little over 200,000, was redesignated as an official metropolitan area despite only five percent of the population being classified as urban as late as 2012. The Greater Hambantota Development Plan 2030 was drawn up by the Urban Development Authority (UDA), which centered around projects of unprecedented scale for the area, including the port, airport, and convention center. Rajapaksa and others touted the scheme as a boon for local job creation.

“The main objective of this new mega town plan is to become the second-largest regional and urban development hub or to act as a counter magnet to Colombo and essentially decentralize the economic development as set out in the greater Hambantota development plan,” write the authors of the paper “Hambantota Sri Lanka: Challenges in Using a ‘New City’ Planning Approach to Regional Growth in Developing Countries.” “The intention was to reduce pressure of population in Western Province and Central Hill, to ease problems of overcrowding and congestion, and to provide alternative sites for urban development.”

Upuli Perera, an urban planner and academic at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, says Hambantota was also attractive because it had plenty of unoccupied land and low population density, making it suitable for large-scale development. “But, on the other hand, there’s also a paradoxical situation that became a challenge, where you have a very low threshold initial population for the investment—that’s the reason why there’s a very long payback period,” she says. “It takes a long time for the global economic forces to come into Hambantota: the ships to come, the planes to come, the cricketers to go to play.”

The unprecedented scale of the tsunami devastation had provided an opportunity to redirect development. Soon afterward, authorities decided to forbid rebuilding by the seaside. Instead, the government built residents’ homes inland using international aid funding, creating brand new villages within Hambantota; tsunami victims were instructed to take up residence. Hundreds of others were resettled to make way for the development projects, some of them in new communities that lacked amenities such as Buddhist temples, or that had a temple, but no priest. Perera, who has studied the resettlement programs, describes other absurd effects on the coastal town. “Fisherman got resettled a few kilometers from the shore… where they have to carry all their fishing nets when they go on the bus, and carry all their fish home on the bus.”

Many more now face relocation to make way for the planned 15,000-acre industrial zone, which is also backed by Beijing and will target Chinese investors. In Karivilla, a village in Hambantota, residents are furious that they might lose their homes and livelihoods. They made their anger clear at an opening ceremony for the industrial zone in January 2017, staging a protest in full view of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In the ensuing clashes, plain-clothed thugs allegedly affiliated with the government attacked the protesters, including Buddhist monks, with clubs. Demonstrators struck back with rocks. Tear gas and water cannons were used to disperse the crowd.

Surrounded by a group of men in the village, Dharmasena Hettiarachchi, a 52-year-old farmer and a leader in the fight to save their land, says the proposed relocation site is “immaterial” to them. “It is not only about us, but also our children’s livelihoods,” he says, the men around him nodding along in agreement. “We will fight to the death. We will never leave.”

Setting a Debt Trap

At the ceremony for the industrial zone, Chinese ambassador Yi Xianlang reportedly called it “the moment for China to help other countries who need investments.” He then proceeded to detail a plan in which Beijing would invest $5 billion in Sri Lanka over three to five years, which he claimed would create 100,000 jobs. “No force can stop the cooperation from China to Sri Lanka,” he asserted.

When former Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa was first touting his scheme to transform Hambantota, he initially approached Indian officials. “It was offered to India first. I was desperate for development work. But ultimately the Chinese agreed to build it,” he told a newspaper in 2010. But few shipping companies have chosen to utilize the isolated port, and both it and the international airport were quickly dubbed white elephants. After Rajapaksa was ousted in 2015, the current government began looking for ways to offset some of the $8 billion in debt Sri Lanka owed China for various projects, soon turning to a debt-for-equity swap with the port’s chief financial backer.

“We are giving the country a better deal without any implications on security,” Wickremesinghe told reporters before the $1.1 billion deal, which gives China an 70 percent stake in the port for 99 years, was signed in July. But other high-ranking politicians—former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake among them—have conceded that Beijing has taken control of the port in a strategic move to advance its One Belt One Road goals, something the Chinese firm at the center of the deal has been explicit about.

And many analysts question the notion that it represents nothing more than a benign commercial deal. “With Hambantota port, there are concerns that the Sri Lankan government might eventually allow Chinese naval vessels to use it for more than normal visits and/or to construct naval facilities,” says David Brewster, a senior research fellow at Australian National University. “Of course, for a naval vessel to use a port in another country it needs that country’s permission” — permission that might be more easily extracted from a government deeply indebted to China.

For many local residents, the construction of the port has created practical difficulties by leaving the old town shut off from resettlement sites and neighboring villages, forcing residents to go around the harbor to get back into town. Business owners complain that trade has slowed down. And in her paper, urban planner Mariyathas found that 75 percent of businesses in the old town had to close down as a result of the project. In Mirijjawila, a neighborhood of Hambantota cut off by the port on the western side, they report that most residents now look to nearby Ambalantota as their go-to commercial hub.

Now controlled by the state-run China Merchants Port Holdings (CMPH), the port is closed to members of the public, including journalists who could once access it but are now turned away at the gates. The only place to catch a glimpse is from Hambantota’s white-sand beach, almost empty but for small fishing boats parked along the shore. Just a few ships visit each week, according to online shipping trackers and local news reports, but CMPH has signalled its intention to bring the port to “full operation” and unlock Sri Lanka’s “potential to be a global maritime center.”

More Elephants Than Airplanes

Driving to the airport is a similarly odd experience, more wildlife safari than highway route. On the way, a troupe of nine long-tailed macaques scampers past. We slow down to allow a pair of mongeese to cross in front of our motorbikes. A peacock struts by, its vibrant plumage tucked away. At one point, a dog lazes in the middle of the highway, unconcerned for the lack of traffic.

Set on a 5,000-acre plot, the airport has been built to international standards. It has glistening corridors and check-in counters, the ability to handle large commercial jets, and the capacity to receive one million passengers a year. But just one daily international flight operating between Mattala and Dubai uses the airport, plus a couple of weekly domestic flights from the capital. About 75 passengers pass through its pristine concourses each day, says a senior airport official, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to comment to the media. The only people on site during a recent visit were staff members, some bright and welcoming, others wilting with boredom. Hangars at the “World’s Emptiest Airport,” as it’s been dubbed, have even been used to store rice.

Buddhist monks wait to welcome Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the opening of the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. (AP Photo/Sanka Gayashan)

Sri Lanka invested $209 million into construction of the airport; $190 million of that came from China in the form of a loan. The airport has been hemorrhaging money. In 2015, it recorded revenues of just over $450,000 and racked up almost $20 million in losses, according to a parliamentary committee report (PDF) released late last year. Local media has been abuzz with reports that India could step in to take over management of the airport. Brewster believes India could be willing to part with $300 million just to act as a counterbalance to China. The anonymous airport official says the government is “looking at options” and working to find more airlines to establish routes or new investors.

Elephants regularly wander into the airport grounds, and evidence of them—large splotches of dung—can be seen at irregular intervals along the road leading from the terminal to the highway. Sections of walls encircling the port have been pulverised by the pachyderms searching for their old pathways. Residents hang wires around their gardens in an attempt to keep the elephants away, a sign of increasing clashes between man and beast as humans encroach upon their habitat.

Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research Sri Lanka, says the megaprojects have eaten up elephant habitat (though encroachment by farmers is the biggest issue), but elephant corridors at the airport and across highways have helped alleviate some of the issues while the port continues to attract roaming elephants. “Currently they are chased out of there and they come back, leading to elephants becoming more aggressive towards people and increasing conflict,” he says. “In the long term, as the elephant habitat within the port area is cleared and developed, they will stop using that area.”

Though tourists are drawn to the area to see the elephants in the wild, most visitors go straight to resorts that have been built near Yala and Bundala national parks, according to a hotel operator. “In other parts of Sri Lanka, you can make a good business from tourism. Look at Mirissa, Tangalle, Galle,” he says. “In the late 1990s, we had so many tourists. Rich tourists. Everybody came to my city for a day. In big buses, big groups, they were all in the city buying things.” Now, the one-kilometer journey from the harbor has turned into 15, and tourists are bypassing the down-at-the-heel town altogether. “Nobody wants to come,” he says. “Even local tourists don’t come anymore.”

The promise of jobs was one of Rajapaksa’s big selling points — in a region with high unemployment, it was initially well-received by his constituents. But the port was built by two Chinese companies who brought in their own workers and few locals have been employed now that it is operational. “We have been promised jobs, but no one has been given one,” says protest leader Hettiarachchi. There have never been any calls for applications, he says.

Perera, the urban planner, says some local people began creating jobs for themselves about five years ago, eschewing traditional agriculture to sell building materials to the construction sites. But that came to a standstill in 2015. “When the new government came in, personally I think it was very pathetic [that] they didn’t continue any of the construction,” she says. “Regardless of whether Hambantota is the right location or not, a lot of investment has been committed there.” She says the solution to Hambantota’s problems lies in seeing through the original plans.

Urban Development Authority southern province director K.H.M.W.K. Aberathna agrees. But, he admits, funding for the project has lagged, leaving important objectives unfulfilled, including industrial planning, marketing, housing, and energy and water infrastructure. “It seems to be disjointed, [in terms of] the existing core and present administration [area],” he concedes, referring to the government administration complex that has been built on the highway, pulling officials away from the old town center. “But if the total program is done, the area may be part of the plan, not isolated. The existing core [area] lying on the beach is famous for tourism and vulnerable for disasters [such as] the tsunami, hence the new residential area was identified for development with better facilities.”

But with a change in government and the accompanying decline in political will, moving the development forward in a significant manner will be challenging. “Strong dedication of both officers and politicians, plus people, is required,” says Aberathna.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.


Informal Settlers Get Into the Big Data Business

Mukuru, Kenya

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

Dorice Bosibori can pinpoint the moment she became an activist. In 2012, her neighbors began waking to find eviction notices papered across their doors. Then followed a wave of evictions in Mukuru, the informal settlement where she lives in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. And, soon, her own home was at risk too. “When you get an eviction notice, people panic,” she says.

Bosibori joined with other community members—none of whom had land tenure—to fight the government’s plans to auction off the land from under them. After a lengthy and complicated legal process, they won the battle to stay in their homes. Since then, the 37-year-old has been closely involved with Slum Dwellers International (SDI), a network of community-based organizations across three continents, as part of her community’s efforts to advocate for their rights on a local, national and international level.

More than half of Nairobi lives in informal settlements like Mukuru, where families occupy small tin shacks that are tightly packed in alongside local businesses. Meanwhile, Nairobi’s population has more than doubled in the past decade to 3.5 million and is projected to exceed 14 million by 2050 (PDF).

For Bosibori, who spoke on Next City’s World Stage on Monday, one of the best way to push her community’s agenda with policymakers has been to take matters that were once the preserve of academics—specifically the collection of data on the demographics and population of Mukuru—into her own hands. “It took us to collect the data to inform the county government that this is the number of people who are living here, we have these services, we don’t have these services, and these are the services that don’t work,” she said.

Their work has had impact: in August last year, the Nairobi City County Government declared Muruku to be a Special Planning Area and stated that it would begin “a participatory process to develop a physical development plan.” It’s an ambitious undertaking, but for Bosibori and her neighbors, it’s a good start. “We expect now the county government to come and see what we dream Mukuru will look like,” she says.

SDI is promoting this approach across countries, and it has proved effective not only in Kenya but also in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Ghana and India. The non-governmental organization launched a publication, “Know Your City: Slum Dwellers Count,” at World Urban Forum 9, to showcase the work people are doing in their own communities—and the results they are achieving. Again and again, women representing informal settlements at the conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, spoke of their newfound ability to negotiate on behalf of their communities with governments, all thanks to being able to back up their stories with hard data.

“If I am alone, I cannot go to the government. They cannot hear me,” says Joyce Lungu of SDI Zambia. “But when we go together, they can hear us.”

Ariana McPherson, the communications and advocacy officer for SDI, calls it a “pro-poor participatory tool for urban governance… that is transforming cities across Africa and Asia.” But she says that the collection of data is not only about using it to force the hand of governments so that development goals can be met. “Of course, that’s critical, but also through the process of mobilizing the community and doing the data collection, and getting people together, it also has an empowering effect—a unifying effect—that brings the community together to create the kind of change that’s needed.”


Can the New Urban Agenda Tame Kuala Lumpur?

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

When a crane toppled from a construction site of a high-rise condo into a neighboring apartment complex in residential Kuala Lumpur in January, Philip Phang saw the accident as symbolic of the “rampant unsustainable development” taking place across Malaysia’s capital. “Fortunately nobody got hurt,” says Phang, but the incident came just months after a crane operator was killed in an accident on another site in Taman Desa, an area where Phang has lived most of his life.

Phang, the coordinator of the Protect Taman Desa Coalition, is now seeing it transform before his eyes and, like many local residents, is unhappy with the pace of change. Population density is set to increase “tenfold,” he claims, and planned new buildings are reaching above 40 stories, compared to the current highest which stands at about 23 stories. “The worst part of it is that even with all of these increases, the infrastructure remains the same. Taman Desa has zero public transportation, except for a bus service that comes every 30 minutes, and it’s been like this for 40 years,” he says.

Phang and his coalition have aired their grievances during consultations with City Hall, but says their concerns have never been taken into account. They’ve also staged multiple sit-ins in the local area, and recently joined a new network of 30 residents’ associations called Selamatkan Kuala Lumpur, or Save Kuala Lumpur, and on Saturday took their protest to the World Urban Forum, which Malaysia is hosting for the first time. “We found that we were not alone, there were many other similar issues going on in KL city as a whole, of different sizes and of different magnitude,” he says. “The common thing we found is this rampant development… taking place without considering the existing infrastructure, social impact, and traffic impact as well.”

Malaysia is rapidly urbanizing, and it is estimated that 80 percent of the country will be urban by 2030, with the capital at the core of that shift. With 1.8 million people living in Kuala Lumpur, and more than five million in the wider urban area, the population is only set to increase. The city’s mayor has said that disaffected residents will need to “change their mindsets” and adapt to the changing landscape. And the pressure is on to boost economic development as Malaysia strives to achieve its “Vision 2020” of achieving high-income and developed nation status within two years.

Ihsan Mokhtar, the president of the Malaysian Institute of Planners, says the government is working on multiple solutions to address urban challenges in Kuala Lumpur and beyond. Mokhtar, who spoke at a World Urban Forum session on Malaysia’s rapid urbanization, is a proponent of an attempt to reverse the trend of rural to urban migration. “The rural areas are [becoming] empty; devoid of population,” he said. “The east coast railway line is going to change how we look at things; it’s going to allow the rural areas to become connected without destroying the jungle.”

Mokhtar, who says he is “not pro-government,” points to a raft of official initiatives being initiated by implemented to improve livability in Kuala Lumpur, especially around public transport. “Under the current prime minister, we are concentrating more on public transport—we walk the talk,” he says. “Our Mass Rapid Transit is going to be one of the best in the world, with a touch-and-go card [that lets you] go anywhere in the city. We’re making the city more walkable; we’re making the city safer. And this is a direct result of the policies that have been put in place.”

But Mokhtar admits that there is a “big issue” with Malaysia’s various national urban plans (there are three in total) not being fully implemented by authorities, while there are also overlapping city plans in varying stages of implementation and legislation. “It’s about time we sell the plans to the public,” he adds. “We can create the plans, but if we don’t get people to buy in…”

Phang, for his part, accepts that as the city continues to grow there “should be development” in suburban areas, but wants local authorities—who are appointed by the government rather than elected—to take into account residents’ views when approving projects. “There must be balance, and it must be sustainable,” he says.


The Pristine Exclusivity of Cambodia’s “Imported Cities”

At the entrance to Grand Phnom Penh International City, bronze stallions gallop across the tops of twin arches, supported by imposing white columns in the classical style of ancient Rome. The road that leads into the luxury estates beyond is lined with coconut palms, a rare nod to Cambodia in this satellite city that feels a world away from its geographic location.

Situated on 640 acres of land to the north of Phnom Penh, the “self-sustaining urban township” is being built as a joint real estate venture by Indonesian and Cambodian property developers. It is one of a half-dozen massive development projects — entire cities and neighborhoods unto themselves — reshaping the character of Cambodia’s dusty, low-rise capital.

For the past two decades, the Cambodian government has been handing over large tracts of land to private companies, ostensibly with the aim of spurring economic development. But what was initially designed to be a selectively-employed tactic to attract foreign investment has evolved into a broad-based approach to urbanization that concedes large sections of the city to offshore property developers.

Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), as such land deals are usually called, were until recently mostly used in rural areas. The government would grant a foreign agricultural company a long-term land lease and in return that company would use the land to grow crops like bananas or sugarcane. The concept was framed as a win-win scenario, in which private companies get access to land and Cambodia gets an economic boost from a thriving agrobusiness within its own borders.

The model wasn’t without flaws, however. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights estimates that 700,000 Cambodians have been displaced from their homes to make way for ELCs, and that often these agreements have been used as little more than a cover for illegal logging. More and more, the concessions have come to be viewed as a territorial giveaway to rapacious foreign powers, which prompted Cambodia’s prime minister to declare a moratorium on granting new ELCs in 2012.

But the ELC model didn’t die. Over the past decade, as urbanization has become big business, ELCs have migrated from the countryside to the city. Though such land deals in cities are not characterized as ELCs on paper, in reality the practice is much the same: The government awards huge chunks of urban land to offshore investors and local developers alike. Much of this development is taking place in huge development projects owned entirely by private companies on city fringes.

To a degree, these satellite city projects are a response to rapid urbanization and economic growth, combined with a state failure to invest in planning and infrastructure — this is what has happened in Phnom Penh. According to University of Leeds geographers Tom Percival and Paul Waley, property developers sense an opportunity and step in to fill the void with their model of urban planning by private corporation.

“This caters to a growing demand for satellite city living from middle- and upper-income groups, who are wooed by images of a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Businesses too evince the desire to move out of makeshift space in the city center into the appropriately international setting of a satellite city,” the academics write in Articulating Intra-Asian Urbanism: The Production of Satellite Cities in Phnom Penh. “At the same time, governments have become increasingly entrepreneurial in order to attract investment from regional urban development companies.”

View of the surrounding area of Orussey Market in central Phnom Penh.

Imported Cities

Drive down the perfectly paved streets of Grand Phnom Penh, and a sound that has become rare elsewhere in the traffic-snarled city can be heard all around: birds chirping in unison. Residents say that the tranquil environment is what drew both them and the birds. Nhek Sim, a retiree who declined to give her age, bought into Grand Phnom Penh two years ago. She thinks of it as a weekend escape from her home in an affluent suburban area that’s mostly populated by middle-class Cambodians. “I used to have another house in the inner city, but because of the traffic and pollution, I rented it to someone else and went to live in Toul Kork. But now, [the livability there] is not very good either,” she says.

Her two-story townhouse overlooks an 18-hole golf course created by Jack Nicklaus’ design firm, and is a stone’s throw from a theme park, Fantastic Water World. Still in the pipeline for this area are a golf clubhouse, school and shopping mall. According to an on-site sales executive who spoke anonymously, as she is not authorized to make comment to media, prices for the 5,000 homes that are either built or being constructed range from $111,000 to $1 million. By comparison, the minimum monthly wage in Cambodia’s vast garment sector is just $170; many workers in other industries are paid considerably less.

This is not just a Cambodian phenomenon. The trend can be seen across Southeast Asia, where it has become increasingly common over the past decade for satellite cities to spring up in peri-urban areas.

Vietnam is home to several sprawling projects. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Taiwan-backed Phu My Hung, or Saigon South, was originally intended to house a million people. Northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, a Malaysian firm is building the largest project, North West Metropolitan Area, at an estimated cost of $3 billion. In the capital, Hanoi, long-established Indonesian developer Ciputra is constructing Ciputra Hanoi International City on 740 acres in partnership with a local firm.

In Malaysia, Bandar Malaysia is a new planned business district in Kuala Lumpur of which China has been seeking partial ownership. And off the country’s Singapore-facing coast, a string of cities are being built by Chinese companies, with buyers from mainland China as their target market.

Even tiny Laos has seen large-scale foreign property investment. On the outskirts of the capital, Vientiane, is the $1.6 billion That Luang marsh development, a controversial Chinese project that has led to the eviction of hundreds of families.

These satellite cities are generally financed by either a single developer or through a joint venture, and they result in entirely planned settlements that integrate residential, business, retail and leisure amenities into one community. Most of these self-contained urban systems are being built either partially or entirely by foreign firms, each via an ELC-style agreement with the host country or through other government-driven economic development schemes.

Regionally, this model has its roots in Indonesia. It dates back to the early 1970s on the outer edges of Jakarta — then a relative backwater and now a sprawling megacity of about 30 million people — in response to a growing middle-class demand for suitable housing. One of the first privately developed satellite cities, Pondok Indah, broke ground in 1975. Built atop 1,135 acres of former rubber plantations, it has since morphed into a wealthy suburb in the south of the Indonesian capital.

Camko City, a $2 billion urban development project built in the north of the capital Phnom Penh

Indonesia’s early satellite cities were built by domestic companies, but more recent projects across Southeast Asia tend to be funded by foreign direct investment funneled in from other parts of Asia. For example, Indonesia-based Ciputra, which also helped establish Pondok Indah, is the international driving force behind Cambodia’s Grand Phnom Penh.

Satellite cities in the region, Percival and Waley note, are “based on models of urban design and governance practices in other Asian cities, or they utilize best practice examples, which are extracted and emulated from other cities … The mobility of capital, concepts and expertise has been and remains central to the process of diffusion of these urban projects throughout Southeast Asia.”

Yet despite this cross-border flow of investment and expertise, the attributes typical of many Southeast Asian cities are not immediately obvious to a visitor at these developments. There are no chaotic markets overflowing with fruit and vegetables; no vendors hawking their wares; and no motorbikes or tuk-tuks buzzing around. The streets are orderly and quiet, the identical houses painted in muted hues. These are, as the sales prices suggest, developments that cater to the rich. At Grand Phnom Penh, toy Mercedes-Benzes and Maseratis are parked in front of the model homes. Both here and at nearby development CamKo City, villas are accompanied by Lexus SUVs, the preferred automobile among the Cambodian elite. Many of them bear the distinctive license plates affixed to cars driven by government and military officials, a clue as to who is really benefiting from the country’s development boom.

Simon Springer, an associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria who specializes in Cambodia, says corruption and elitism are inseparable from the mechanisms surrounding large-scale land distribution. “Cambodian politics is still very nepotistic and operates through patron-client relations,” he says. “What’s changed is simply the rapidity of ELCs being granted and the brazenness of officials to assign them. There’s just no shame at all at this stage, and they don’t even attempt to look honorable in how these are being managed because the views and interests of the general public are a complete afterthought, if they’re ever even thought of at all.”

Meanwhile, some analysts question the economic benefits of these developments. Stephen Higgins, the co-founder of investment and advisory firm Mekong Strategic Partners, says that while they function adequately as “dormitory suburbs,” they fail to drive meaningful economic outcomes. “Cities become powerful economic drivers when they attract a large group of diverse economic actors who come together and achieve more than what they could separately,” he says. “That just doesn’t happen with satellite cities.”

“Development Only for the Wealthy”

CamKo City, a $2 billion project spearheaded by Korean firm World City, was one of the first projects — built on the site of a former lake — to break ground in Phnom Penh back in 2007. The company maintains it purchased Pong Peay lake from private owners, though under Cambodian law, such bodies of water are state property. Construction on the sprawling 250-acre site ground to a halt amid the 2008 financial crisis, which derailed Korea’s financial sector and led to the collapse of World City’s banking partner, Busan Savings Bank. Seven condominium blocks still stand half-finished, but eight others are filled with residents, and investment planning manager Jung Kuy Shin says World City is pressing ahead with the next phase of development.

Though the master plan will be revised this year and some sections are set to be sold off or developed in partnership with external funders, Shin says World City remains committed to developing the site — and also to the infrastructure pledge the company made to Cambodia’s government.

“All of the infrastructure is being built by our company, and our company is managing all of the infrastructure, including communications, sewage, disposal facilities, drainage, electricity and water,” Shin tells me over a table covered with plans for the development. “We’ve already installed a road here,” he adds, pointing to a diagram of the site.

Wood artisans at work in an impromptu workshop built outside one of the villas under construction in the Grand Phnom Penh International City

While potential buyers no doubt find this comprehensive provision of services attractive in a city where basic functionality is often lacking or nonexistent, observers say it speaks to one of the problems presented by satellite cities: If an under-resourced government palms off the provision of infrastructure to private developers catering to the rich and influential, who will provide for the city residents, failed by the state, who cannot afford the steep price tag attached to all-inclusive property?

Many agencies are already sounding the alarm on the economic disparities this development model is embedding into urban areas. “Without pushing for comprehensive city infrastructure, Phnom Penh risks seeing development only for the wealthy,” notes the 2017 World Bank report Expanding Opportunities for the Urban Poor. “Currently, these satellite cities are not included in any broader development plan and do not coordinate infrastructure with surrounding neighborhoods.”

Judy Baker, the report’s co-author and lead urban specialist at the World Bank, says the degree of impact on Southeast Asian cities largely depends on how well planned the links are between large-scale development and wider urban structures. This includes “how they are connected to existing transport, water, sewage and other trunk infrastructure to connect people to jobs and opportunities; whether they use sustainable approaches to development; and the extent to which they provide for affordable housing so that they can contribute to balanced and equitable development.”

Every development in Phnom Penh must to adhere to an overarching master plan, regardless of its size, according to municipal spokesman Met Meas Pheakdey. But the document, “Phnom Penh Land Use for 2035” — the first comprehensive master plan since the French colonial era — was only released in 2015, years after all of the large-scale developments currently under construction won government approval.

And since its release, implementation of the master plan has been patchy. One of the biggest challenges is a lack of government oversight, according to the Asian Development Bank, which points out in a 2016 report: “There is no specific ministry for urban development and planning; it is delegated across several ministries.” Responsibility for roads is split between two ministries, and one of these is also concerned with drainage; water resources are under the purview of a third ministry, but the city water authority is charged with supplying water to homes and businesses; and a fourth ministry, that of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction, is limited to the spatial aspects of planning.

Little wonder, then, that there is a disconnect between self-contained satellite cities and the urbanscape around them. A spokesman for the ministry in charge of spatial urban planning declined to comment.

The Displacement Game

Residents either living nearby or who have been evicted from their homes to make way for large-scale developments, unsurprisingly, feel less than enthusiastic about them.

Seang Nat lives about an hour’s drive from his old home in the center of Phnom Penh, from which he was evicted in 2008 to make way for the city’s most contentious foreign-backed development to date: the Boeung Kak lake project. In early 2007, the municipality handed over 330 acres of prime land — including the 222-acre publicly owned lake — to local development firm Shukaku, a decision that would result in a 10-year battle with local residents who were unwilling to make way for the luxury development.

Offered the choice of $8,500 compensation, a one-bedroom home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh or the promise of an onsite apartment once construction was complete, many of the 4,000 local families balked. Nat agreed to move his young family to the resettlement site, a decision that still sits uneasily more than a decade later. “At the time, I was worried that if I didn’t move out from the lake area, my house would collapse because of the sand being pumped into the lake,” he says.

Nat says that since then, life has been a struggle for his family. A tuk-tuk driver by trade, finding new clients was a slow burn in the early years, and nowadays he has to compete with the city’s new bus service. Their roof leaks badly and repairs will cost about $1,000 — money the family just doesn’t have. “If my daughter can’t get a scholarship, I’m concerned because I don’t have enough money to send her to university,” he says.

Laborers at work in one of the "premium villas" inside the Grand Phnom Penh International City

Most of the former Boeung Kak residents have moved on from the resettlement site, going either closer to the city or back to their home villages. But Nat’s neighbor, Ly Seth, has also stayed on. Seth is also a driver, though he earns less because he only has a motorcycle. His wife, however, is a well-paid team leader at a nearby garment factory, meaning the family is relatively comfortable and has even added a second story to their home. “Even if one month we don’t have much money, I can just fry up some morning glory, close the door, and eat with my children,” he says.

Regardless, both men complain about the lack of services in the area. “When it rains for a couple of hours, it can flood to knee level inside the house, and after about four or five hours, the water is gone,” says Nat. The roads leading to their homes are rough and potholed, and the smell of sewage emanates from open drains running alongside them. “We plan to make a request to local authorities to build new roads and drainage,” adds Seth.

Developers, however, argue that their projects are helping to address urban infrastructure issues in the long-term. After being stalled for years, the Boeung Kak project is finally under construction and Shukaku is attempting to makeover its toxic image, rebranding the site as the Phnom Penh City Center and offering on its website a vision of a sustainable and innovative community. The company has also shed its Chinese partner in favor of cooperating with a range of local and offshore partners.

Shukaku executive director Michelle Lau, the daughter of a well-connected Cambodian politician who established the firm, says Shukaku hopes to “create a safe, liveable and quality urban environment for the local and international community, where they can live, work and play within the integrated spaces.”

“Given the high population density ratio and rapid urbanization in the older parts of Phnom Penh, where development has outpaced the early infrastructure, it is a prerogative that we take sustainability into consideration when mapping out our master plan,” she says, pointing to PPCC’s infrastructure plans.

World City’s Shin, meanwhile, says that CamKo will begin catering to middle-class Cambodians in future rounds of development. Shin notes that the class is a growing market that has been overlooked in the city’s speculative property boom, so he plans to offer condominiums for less than $80,000. “Our company will try to look at and study the trends and how to help the Cambodian people in Phnom Penh,” he says.

Whether these nods to sustainability and inclusiveness are enough to help address Phnom Penh’s myriad urbanization issues is a matter for debate. Pheakdey Heng, the acting country representative of the Global Green Growth Institute, an international organization that is working with the government on a plan to green the city, says large-scale private developers can help to create jobs, fill infrastructure gaps and even introduce green technology. But, he warns, “They must practice responsible investment by taking into consideration the social and environmental costs and benefits of their investment, not just trying to maximize returns.”

Springer, the geographer, is not convinced. He believes these satellite cities merely “talk the talk of being inclusive, sustainable and equitable.”

“In terms of sustainability, it’s hard for me to imagine how urban sprawl is anything but a scar on the landscape that produces profound damage on existing ecosystems that are simply paved over,” he says. “Developers aren’t concerned with equity or environmental impacts, they simply want to make money and will use whatever strategy works best for them to achieve that. If it means greenwashing in some locations or appealing to elite values in other places, they’ll speak the language that’s going to bring the reward.”

Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.


The “Ugly” Statistics on Urban Sexual Violence

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

In 2012, the brutal gang rape of a student on a bus in Delhi shocked India. The young woman died days later and protesters poured onto the city’s streets to decry the attack itself and violence against women in general. A horrific moment of reckoning, the incident sparked a nationwide conversation about the treatment of women in India, and galvanized people like Elsa Marie D’Silva, then working in the aviation industry, to take concrete action.

D’Silva walked away from a lucrative 20-year career to set up the Red Dot Foundation, a Mumbai-based nonprofit that runs the Safecity platform, which tracks incidents of sexual harassment in cities and towns using crowd-sourced data. “The statistics are very ugly,” D’Silva told an audience at Next City’s World Stage at World Urban Forum 9 on Saturday. “Globally, it’s a pandemic, where one in three women on average experiences some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. In India it’s much higher [and] 80 percent of us never talk about it.”

Other statistics collated in a survey on behalf of UN Women are equally shocking: 75 percent of women and girls faced sexual violence in their own neighborhoods, nine out of 10 experienced sexual aggression or violence, and half of men said they had sexually harassed or been violent toward a woman in public, with male respondents overwhelmingly blaming women for their own behavior. “What I found when I started working on this issue is that actually there was not enough data,” D’Silva says.

So she set about changing that. Since its launch in December 2012, the platform has collected more than 11,000 stories from women in countries including India, Nepal, Cameroon and the Philippines. A nongovernmental organization in Kuala Lumpur, where the World Urban Forum is being held, is also gearing up to launch the platform in Malaysia.

As it has spread globally, its use has been adapted to the needs of different contexts. In the informal settlement of Kibera, in Nairobi, data is collected entirely offline through so-called “Talking Boxes” set up in schools and other public spaces. Young women can share their experiences by placing anonymous notes in the boxes.

“There’s a lot of sexual harassment in Kibera, and at times, because of their financial status, girls end up accepting these people taking advantage of them because they have no option and they also have no one to share with when they’re being harassed,” said Jane Anyango, the founder and director of the Polycom Development Project. “And out of this we discovered so much: that the children were going through harassment—some were being physically abused—but they were not able to tell anybody.”

Both Anyango and D’Silva are using the data to identify trends and support the implementation of offline initiatives designed to combat sexual harassment. In India, this has included painting wall murals in harassment hotspots to discourage men from ogling women and pushing Mumbai and Delhi police to improve their response times, while in Nairobi it has ranged from starting sports programs that aim to boost girls’ confidence, to radio shows that teach boys how to better interact with women.

“With this data we can talk about long-term interventions,” says Anyango. “We’re able to go into what do we do so that it doesn’t happen again. We’re able to bring other stakeholders on board [such as] schools and other community practitioners, and we’re also talking about the policymakers because we have data to back up what we’re telling them.”

These are, D’Silva says, hyper-local solutions that can have a big impact on women’s lives, through mobilizing communities and holding institutions accountable. But she says policymakers still need to do far more to ensure women feel safe in public spaces and on public transport if they want them to, for example, become more engaged in the workforce, as India does.

“When we’re talking about urban planning, about cities that we’re building for the future and cities for all, we have to, I believe, address sexual violence because it’s a development challenge,” she says. “We have to recognize, first, that it’s a development challenge before we do anything else.”


Manila’s Public Transit Tricycles Get an Accessibility Upgrade

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

When Abner Manlapaz’s modified three-wheeler motorbike broke down three years ago, he found himself “really struggling.” The Manila resident and president of the Life Haven Center for Independent Living, an association for people with disabilities in the Philippines, was unable to use public transport in the sprawling city, as it does not cater to wheelchair users. “It’s really very difficult during rush hour or when it’s raining,” he says. “This reduced my participation in many meetings; it affected my work and many other activities. So I had to do something about it.”

In towns and cities across the Philippines, public transport is provided in something of an ad hoc fashion: brightly colored converted trucks known as jeepneys, and tricycles — which are motorbikes fitted with a large sidecar — are the primary forms of shared transport. But while these vehicles have become an iconic sight in the Southeast Asian nation, they present a major accessibility challenge to people with disabilities.

At the time, Manlapaz was part of a technical working group that included architects, engineers, the transportation department and more. “We were thinking, what is the design of an accessible jeepney? An accessible tricycle? We know how to design an accessible bus, because we have seen it in many countries, but we don’t have jeepneys in other countries; we don’t have tricycles.”

When the working group declared the task impossible, Manlapaz took matters into his own hands, conducting research and coming up with a design that he showed to a friend who runs a backyard auto repair shop. For $2,500 — just a few hundred dollars more than a standard tricycle — he created a modified tricycle with a floor that turns into a ramp, and enough space for a wheelchair user along with several other passengers.

If the prototype becomes a mass-market reality — there are still the matters of improving safety and finding a financial backer to deal with — it could help solve a host of problems faced by people with disabilities living in Manila and beyond, according to Manlapaz, who presented his design at a roundtable on people with disabilities at World Urban Forum 9. One area that excites him is the potential for boosting educational outcomes for young people with disabilities by allowing them to reach high schools that typically lie outside their villages. He also hopes the design could help protect women with disabilities from the unwanted sexual touching that sometimes occurs when men lift them into vehicles.

And it’s not just those with visible disabilities whose lives are hampered by unwelcoming urban spaces and services. Victor Pineda, professor of Urban Planning at the University of California—Berkeley and an advocate for people with disabilities, noted during Next City’s World Stage networking event on Wednesday that when you include mobility issues, visual impairments and hearing difficulties, one in seven people worldwide live with a disability.

His vision, he explained, is for cities to become truly inclusive of all residents, with no physical or social barriers and no economic or legal challenges preventing them from living the lives they wish to pursue. “What we have to do is reimagine, what is the city that we want? What is the city that we need? And what are the steps that we’re going to take to build that city?” Pineda and others working to advance the rights of people with disabilities in cities say that they want to see strategies such as the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goal 11 come to fruition.

But as Friday’s roundtable session heard, achieving that vision remains far off. Though more and more cities are recognizing the need to improve accessibility in areas ranging from transport to tech, progress can be grindingly slow.

And a number of speakers pointed to a lack of knowledge about accessible urban design among those creating the spaces. “In my opinion the biggest challenge is the architects and engineers,” Mukhtar Al Shibani, an architect and founding member of the Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments, told the audience. “They’re not learning or being taught about accessibility in their education… So [they need] to change their minds from left to right, to think of all users on an equality basis.”


What Happens Once the Global South’s Youth Bulge Grows Old?

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

Imagine a woman who is married at 15, widowed at 60, then moves away from her rural home to care for her grandchildren in a city. Unable to read or write—like many older people who never had the opportunity to access education—she finds herself isolated from a new and unfamiliar community. “This isn’t a singular story,” says Katherine Kline, “this is the story of many older women, especially those that are being moved by choice or by force to migrate to cities.”

And to be an older person in a city, says Kline, the co-chair of the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) Older Persons group, is to be invisible: not just to a youth-obsessed culture, but to policymakers, governments and urban planners, as well. This is despite the fact that 58 percent of the world’s 900 million older people live in cities, a number that the UN projects will rise to two billion by 2050. “The biggest obstacle, I would say, that we must overcome is our lack of visibility,” she said at the opening of the Women’s Assembly at World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

A 72-year-old “lifetime advocate” and former diplomat who switched her focus to issues affecting older persons eight years ago, Kline taking her message to the World Urban Forum with gusto, paying her own way from New York to Kuala Lumpur and speaking on numerous panels.

To illustrate her point, she has a go-to gripe: the United Nations relies on the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which almost always fail to include people aged 50 and above. Described as “nationally representative” and undertaken in more than 90 developing countries, the data is used, among other purposes, as a baseline for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Although aging populations have long been seen mainly as a concern for industrialized nations, ignoring the rapid demographic shift in the Global South would be a big mistake, she says. “As people move to the cities, so are they becoming older. And many people imagine this is occurring only in the developed countries, but the truth is the fastest-growing population in the developed world and in the developing world is those over 60,” Kline told an audience while speaking on Next City’s World Stage on Wednesday.

Urban centers are almost never designed with older people in mind, presenting them with challenges ranging from the inaccessibility of public spaces such as parks—crucial in combating feelings of isolation—to increased health risks resulting from heavy air pollution, which has been linked to spikes in deaths of the elderly. “[We need] to make sure governments aren’t looking at the immediate present, dealing with their youth bulge, and forgetting that these young people in 30 years are going to be in a different age category,” Kline says.

She believes a good place to start is data collection, an area where civil society advocacy over the past 18 months, since the GAP Older Persons group was established, is beginning to pay dividends. According to Kline, the UN Statistical Commission is expected to approve a project in March to begin research into how to widen the demographic scope of the DHS.

Another win came in the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, which was adopted by 167 countries at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016. Initially, it contained just three specific references to aging or older persons. Kline and her civil society partners managed to increase that to 27. “Now it’s our job to say, what are we doing to implement those 27-plus opportunities to engage the conversation?”

In the face of ingrained ageism, says Kline, advocates for older persons will be pushing hard on their agenda throughout the World Urban Forum and beyond. “That’s the first step: we raise the issue. But, still, there’s a long way to go.”


One of Asia’s Fastest-Growing Cities Just Got a $1 Billion Plumbing Bill

It was a scene that perfectly encapsulated Phnom Penh’s development dilemma: Hundreds of ramshackle houseboats that usually anchor in the river north of the Cambodian capital had pushed downstream in search of cleaner waters, mooring with a view of glittering high-rise buildings that are reshaping the city skyline.

Home to poor fish farmers who earn their living on the water, the boats had found refuge from a river sludge in the shadow of a city that’s in the throes of rapid and continually accelerating development — with little regard for the negative consequences borne largely by the poorest residents. As they waited for the sludge to clear, local officials denied that sewage overflow had caused a fish die-off. They instead blamed, variously, climate change causing the water to become too hot and heavy rain, claims unconvincing to residents.

“The sewage water made the fish die,” said 49-year-old Ming Tiv Bo, pointing to a blue container floating near her houseboat in May. “All the fish inside the barrels, all the fish died.”

Bo and other fish farmers had experienced the sludge before. Ly Chhun Leng lives next to a blackened canal upriver from where the fish deaths occurred. She says the amount of sewage pumped into the slow-moving water led her community to give up fishing altogether. “It always happens, every year,” she says.

But mass fish die-offs of the scale this past spring are unusual — and a frightening preview of the future to come if Phnom Penh continues to grow without remaking its 60-year-old water management system amid spiraling population growth.

“It’s a very critical situation now,” says Nishikawa Masashi, a project adviser at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Japanese government’s international aid and development agency and the lead force behind a new $1 billion proposal to adapt Cambodia’s wastewater management system to meet the dual challenges of rapid urbanization and climate change.

Urban farmers collect water vegetables that grow on the surface of Boeung Tompun lake, which is the dumping ground for Phnom Penh’s sewage.

Phnom Penh, with an estimated 3 million residents, is a small town compared to megacities like Tokyo with its 38 million residents or Beijing with its 21 million. Yet the Cambodian capital is one of the fastest urbanizing East Asian cities outside of China, according to a 2015 World Bank study, and a rising star in the world of high-end real estate. In the first six months of 2017 alone, $5 billion in new development was approved in Cambodia, much of it residential, retail and office towers destined for the capital. A recent glossy report from real estate firm CBRE Cambodia describes a building bonanza that has land values in Phnom Penh soaring at historic highs of nearly $5,000 per square meter ($464.50 per square foot) in a country where one in 10 people still lives below the poverty line. Located at the intersection of three rivers in a part of the world where temperatures soar year-round, the low-lying city is among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change. “While Phnom Penh has slightly more financial capacity to respond to climate change impacts, its relatively low elevation, proximity to the ocean and the Mekong River make it particularly vulnerable,” noted a 2012 World Wildlife Fund report.

Cambodia’s leaders promise a bright future, centered on Phnom Penh as the economic, cultural and administrative hub of the country, and fueled in large part by development. (The World Bank and other international agencies agree that construction has been a major driver of economic growth.) With so much riding on new building, the city in 2015 released a comprehensive master plan, the first since 1950, when the city was under French colonial rule. It had taken eight years for the document, titled “Phnom Penh Land Use for 2035,” to win the approvals needed to become government policy and implementation has been sketchy. Still undecided is a forward-looking strategy for getting rid of all the waste that will eventually flow from all new homes, offices, shops and restaurants expected to rise.

Infrastructure Ready for Rapid Urbanization

There is no requirement that developers include septic systems when planning new housing or commercial projects, and many do not. Cambodia’s census agency found that of the 92.9 percent of Phnom Penh households that have a toilet, just 19.7 percent have a septic tank while the rest are connected to drainage facilities. Typically, larger developments such as planned communities or sprawling satellite cities on the urban outskirts are more likely to include septic systems than tower blocks in the inner city, where space is at a premium.

For developments that are connected to the city’s drainage system, there are no guarantees that flooding will be avoided or wastewater will stay underground. The city built its drainage system in the early 1960s. Through the 1970s civil war and Khmer Rouge era, the system fell into disrepair. Today, it overloads in heavy rain, sending stormwater and untreated sewage into streets that many navigate without a closed vehicle. In a country where seasons are roughly divided into “wet” and “dry,” floods are a frequent occurrence in many parts of the city, despite investments upward of $100 million in drainage improvements over the last two decades.

“Before, when heavy rains came, the flooding in Phnom Penh sometimes lasted more than two hours. Now most of the serious flooding areas have been improved,” says Masashi. “The water remains for only 20 minutes or one hour.”

And all that waste must go somewhere. The city does not have a sewage treatment plant, so the effluent mostly flows straight into large lakes in the south — Boeung Tompun and the adjoining Boeung Choeung Ek — where wild and cultivated aquatic plants growing on the surface act as a natural filtration system. Tiny organisms that live on the root of the floating plants feed on both organic matter and harmful pathogens found in sewage, turning the effluent into clean water. But this microbe-reliant method, which is both cheap and efficient, comes with a caveat.

“The capacity of the natural treatment process depends on it not being overburdened by too much sewage,” says Taber Hand, director of Wetlands Work, which builds treatment systems. “When the wetlands area becomes too small, or the volume of sewage input increases due to a growing population, the microbial community does not have sufficient time … to make the water very clean.”

Now that system is under attack as developers fill in wetlands so they can build on the landfill. A 2015 study by urban housing and sustainability NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) of 25 lakes in Phnom Penh found that 15 had been filled in, representing a loss of 60 percent of these wetlands, while a further eight lakes had been partially filled.

The farmers who harvest water vegetables from Boeung Tompun and fishermen who cast nets there say the water is becoming increasingly unpleasant to work in — and many suspect that it is causing them health problems, though there is no comprehensive data available on the public health or economic cost of flooding.

Suong Chrai, 49, has been fishing on the lake for 13 years. The condition of his skin gets worse with every passing day. “First the water began eating away at my skin, and then it got more and more itchy,” he says as he digs a trap out from the shore.

Fisherman Suong Chrai pulls his canoe into the shore of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tompun lake. He cannot afford to see a doctor about the skin problems he suffers as a result of prolonged contact with the contaminated water.

Sustainable Infrastructure for Some?

Phnom Penh is a city that has taken on water quality before — and won. In 1993, JICA began working with the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority to remake its drinking water supply. It took more than two decades of hard work and sustained funding to get the city’s tap water to meet World Health Organization standards. Now the city wants a similar concentrated investment in a modernized urban drainage system.

“The Environment Ministry sees a real need for a proper sewage treatment plant for Phnom Penh, especially given that the city is fast-growing [in terms of] population and economic activity,” says Sao Sopheap, ministry spokesman. “There’s a real need for a proper system.”

In December 2016, JICA presented the municipality with its waste management master plan. If all the proposals were implemented, it would cost more than $1 billion. The key recommendation is construction of a sewage treatment plant to handle waste from the most built-up areas of the city. With a capacity of 282,000 cubic meters (about 2 million cubic feet) a day, the plant would cost $450 million to build in four stages. In addition, a decentralized system of waste treatment, known as Johkasou, is recommended for a secondary area that has about half the population of central Phnom Penh. The plan recommends stand-alone septic tanks for households located in farther-flung areas.

With the JICA plan in hand, the Cambodian government has asked the Japanese government for international aid dollars to cover the first stage of the plant, Masashi says.

“Just [in August] we received an official request, and it is going to be for further consideration by the Japanese government in Tokyo. So we haven’t made any commitment yet. But we also put high priority on this project,” he says.

“Drinking water [came] first because it directly impacts human life. People need water to live, but wastewater comes later,” he added.

Met Measpheakdey, a Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman, says the municipality can’t confirm if the plant would go ahead without Japan’s support. “We are not sure if they will provide the funds or not. We have to know where we will get the financing from,” he says. Potential sites for the plants have not yet been made public.

Duck farmer Yem Sarom has been living by Boeung Tompun lake for 20 years and says he and members of his family are plagued by skin ailments.

In any case, immediate alleviation of Phnom Penh’s sewage issues is unlikely; not only does Japan first have to agree to fund the work, but the master plan recommends that construction on the plant should not begin until 2023. In its first stage, the plant would only have a capacity of 5,000 cubic meters per day — well short of the nearly 300,000 cubic meters JICA believes will need to be treated in the future. “This is very small with the size of this city, so we will have to gradually increase the capacity,” Masashi says, adding that initial costs would be in the region of $50 million.

Whether or not the citywide wastewater management plan moves forward, the same developers who are filling in the region’s lakes are moving ahead with their own plans for self-contained systems.

South of Phnom Penh’s central core, the Cambodian conglomerate ING Holdings is building a sprawling new satellite city complete with high-ceilinged villas, luxe apartments topped with roof decks, a luxury car dealership and a new international school.

The 2,572-hectare development — the largest project in Cambodia — is slated to rise on the wetlands around Boeung Tompun, leaving the estimated 1,800 families who live in the areas surrounding the lake with nowhere to fish or farm morning glory and other water vegetables. ING Holdings has been pumping sand into the lake since 2011, and the company’s website states that just 520 hectares of wetlands will be left untouched. The website for ING City promises “a startling contrast in desirability” to the rest of Phnom Penh by ensuring proper town planning and infrastructure that considers environmental factors, “reflecting the ‘garden city movement.’” Included in that infrastructure: two new wastewater sites and three water treatment plants managed independent of the city.

STT Executive Director Soeung Saran says it would be “disastrous” for the city’s residents if the lake is developed as planned. “The people living around there will be affected,” he says. “And if the lake is filled partially or fully, it can impact the whole city since Boeung Tompun is the largest water reservoir where the water from Phnom Penh flows.”

Additional reporting by Hay Pisey.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.


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