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    1. Overview of Urbanisation in theNational Context in CambodiaCambodia is a predominantly rural society, with

    84.3% of its 14 million estimated population living inrural areas. The remaining 15.7% urban dwellers livepredominantly in Phnom Penh, which has an estimatedpopulation of 1.2 million in 2002 and is about 16 timesthe size of the second largest city, Battambang. Thepopulation in Phnom Penh grows at a faster rate than inthe country overall, with an estimated 8% per annummade of a 3% in-migration rate and a 5% naturalincrease (see Table 1).

    The country has one of the lowest HumanDevelopment Index in Asia (a HDI of 0.517 in 2000),with a life expectancy of 54.4 years, an adult literacy of71.2%, and a yearly gross domestic product per capitaof $1,257. Conversely, it scores high on the HumanPoverty Index (42.53), with a high level of mortality andchild malnutrition, and a limited availability of publicservices (Ministry of Planning - Cambodia 2000:4-7).

    Although the HDI is 21% higher in cities than in thecountryside, cities are also where disparities are mostmarked. In Phnom Penh low income settlements, indi-cators of health, access to education and living stan-dards are thus worse than in rural Cambodia with 56%of houses made of bamboo and leaves, only 17.3% with

    access to water distributed by the governmental watersupply authority, and 33% without access to stormdrainage (Fallavier 1999 :56; Slingsby 2000; Squatterand Urban Poor Federation 1999).

    2. History of Phnom PenhThe transformation of Phnom Penh from a bustling

    small port of wooden houses into a modern city startedin 1865 when it became the new royal capital. It accel-erated by 1890, as the French administration intro-duced new concepts to customary land laws: streets aspublic spaces that could not be encroached, and landas an individual private property, officially registered ina cadastre. These helped the administration redesignthe rural city after models of physical planning devel-oped in Paris, for instance uniformly widening streets to20 meters, and organizing the city around its mainadministrative buildings.

    Between the two world wars, French urban policiesaimed to reconstruct and embellish cities in France andin its colonies, providing social housing and public serv-ices to the majority of their inhabitants. As part of thisapproach, Cambodia adopted the Civil Code in 1920,

    The case of

    Phnom Penhby Pierre FallavierWith research assistance: Im Peou, Sophal Roda, Svay Ratha, NounMountha, and Men Sopheapkerya

    ContactPierre FallavierDepartment of Urban Studies and Planning,Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyPO Box 480, Phnom Penh, CambodiaPhone: +855 012 880 822Fax:+855 023 720 763E-mail:


    ce: C




  • Urban Slums Reports: The case of Phanom Penh, Cambodia

    hence strengthening the role of private ownership, andthe official separation between urban and rural spaces.His removed the principle that one owned land as longas one used it for productive purposes, a basis ofcustomary land ownership for rural Khmers. Thischange allowed to organize and finance the develop-ment and modernization of the city, by reclaiming newterritories on wetlands, creating sanitation, railways,and road networks.

    After World War II, the French administration started toredesign Phnom Penh to the needs of its expectedindustrialization, increasing density in residential areasand preparing a zoning and a master plan for the growthof the city, but the 1953 independence cut short theseefforts. From 1956 to 1970, under an independentadministration, Phnom Penh then doubled its size. It alsoregained some national identity as architects adaptedthe legacies of French schools to Khmer architecture torealize large scale projects that redesigned the city: anAngkorian-style Olympic stadium, a large housing proj-ect on concrete stilts in front of the Basac river, a nationaltheatre marrying traditional Khmer style to modern uses,and a garden-city residential district centred around anew telecommunication tower, symbol of modernCambodia (Ministre de la Culture du Cambodge andAtelier Parisien dUrbanisme 1997:27-59).

    The 1970s witnessed the abandonment of PhnomPenh under the Khmer Rouge rgime that emptiedcities of their inhabitants and did not maintain their infra-structures. During the subsequent occupation byVietnamese authorities from 1978 to 1989, and thenuntil 1998, the continuing civil conflicts, political instabil-ity, and relative wealth of Phnom Penh compared to the

    rest of the country, did not make urban development apriority. Urban issues came back on a national agendaonly since the end of 1998.

    3. Physical Characteristics of Phnom Penh

    Phnom Penh was built at the intersection of theMekong, Tonle Sap and Basac rivers at the end of the14th century with its first structures erected on the bulgeof the riverside. The city then developed by reclaimingwetlands, surrounding new perimeters by dikes, andland-filling these reclaimed compartments. Today, themajor avenues are still built on these dikes and recall thegrowth stages of the city.

    Its location at the junction of two rivers that representmajor exchange routes is vital for Phnom Penh. TheMekong is a main artery of transportation and commercein Southeast Asia, which links China, Myanmar, Lao,Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the South ChinaSea, and the Tonle Sap River irrigates Lake Tonle Sap,the largest reservoir of fresh water in Southeast Asia.

    As most of Phnom Penh was established on inun-dated areas, protecting the city from floods by maintain-ing dikes and pumping stations has always been a majorpublic concern. Yet, the management of hydraulic infra-structures was almost abandoned between 1972 and1990, destroying the citys drainage and pumpingsystems. From the early 1990s, diverse missions frombilateral development agencies and development bankshave planned the rehabilitation and extension of thewater network, but it was only by 1998, with the return ofpolitical stability that the city started to address the prob-lem with several projects to improve water supply


    Photo 1: Squatter settlementalong the railroadtrack, next toBoeng Kok lake,Phnom Penh

  • departments, which remain under the control of theministries for budgeting and staffing. Accordingly, manydecisions are made outside the Municipality, and themunicipal autonomy depends on the relations betweenthe Vice-Governors and their ministerial counterparts.The MPP is thus rather small institutionally: it includesthe Governor, the Vice-Governors, their personal staffand the staff of the Cabinet, who are mainly supportstaff, with little technical expertise. As the MPP cannotestablish its own departments apart from the Cabinet, ithas divided the Cabinet into eight sub-cabinets, eachdealing with its allocated sectors.

    Although the Municipality officially gained financialautonomy in 1998, its budget remains constrained as anational law predefines all lines, the Minister of Interiormust approve the budget, and the National Assemblyratifies it. Besides, the city has little power or incentiveto raise its own revenue: it cannot borrow, and even if itcollects taxes (e.g., on vacant land or property transfer)and income from public utilities, it is under no obligationto balance its budget, and must transfer all collection tothe Ministry of Finance.

    The city is divided into seven Khans (districts). TheChiefs of Khan report to the Chief of Cabinet. The threeDeputy Chiefs of Khan are responsible for administra-tion, socio-economic programs and public works. Underthe Khans are Sangkats (wards), which have officersresponsible for administration and statistics, economic,financial, and social affairs, culture, religion and hygiene(Slingsby 2000).



    1. Types of Low-Income SettlementsA quarter of Phnom Penh inhabitants live in low-

    income settlements, or slums.On public land, these settlements developed along-

    side relatively wide streets, railway tracks, riversides,and boengs (water reservoirs used to irrigate farm landduring dry season).

    On private lands, small clusters of families settled indisaffected alleys of better-off districts, while othergroups live as squatters in dilapidated, multiple-occu-pancy buildings in the centre of the city, where ownerswait to sell the building for commercial development.Increasingly, urban poor also informally purchase plotson the rooftops of these buildings where they live assquatters relatively close to their place of work.

    Since 1995, rural migrants have also developedsquatter areas on the rural fringe of the city, on non-constructible public land where they expect that long-term occupation may provide them some tenure rights.


    UNDERSTANDING SLUMS: Case Stud ies fo r the G loba l Repor t on Human Set t lements 2003

    drainage and sewerage. It has now become a priority ofthe Municipality.

    4. Demographics of Phnom Penh Phnom Penh had a population of one million in 1998,

    94% living in urban areas, and the remainder living inperi-urban districts with semi-rural economies. Out ofthis population, a survey by local NGOs estimated in1999 that 35,000 families or about 173,000 persons lived in low-income settlements.

    Yet, even if a large part of low-income residents areregistered with local authorities, up to 20% may havenot been counted. They are renters, seasonal migrants,and people too poor to participate in community savingschemes. They are typically not counted as members ofthe communities whose data the surveys used.Counting this missing 20% would add 35,000 invisiblepoor for a 1999 figure of 207,150.

    Based on an estimate