Report on Fire Outbreak in Phnom Penh on 25 and 27 November 2001

By Toch Vannarith, Information Officer/Translator, UN-HABITAT Cambodia Project

A fire outbreak on 25 and 27 November, 2001 left 1853 households in Bassac and 985 in Chbar Ampov homeless, destitute and traumatised. Despite appeals from NGOs and international agencies, the Municipality of Phnom Penh immediately relocated the fire victims to two unprepared sites, Anlong Kngan and Anlong Kaung, both about 17-18kms from the city center. This decision echoed an announcement in July 2001 by Phnom Penh Governor, Chea Sopara that 80% of the city's estimated 170,000 squatters would be removed from their old locations and resettled outside the city.

As both new sites had no water supply, sanitation, drainage or shelters, relocatees have faced great hardship and many difficulties since moving there. Their greatest challenge is how to earn an income out in a rural area. Commuting to Phnom Penh can cost up to $2 per day which is often more than what people can earn daily. A major hardship is lack of protection from the elements. The fire victims have only been provided a half dozen poles and two sheets of plastic by the Municipality.

Education facilities for children are not yet available. Medical services, especially for children and the elderly are a critical need. Fortunately the UNDP/UN-HABITAT Phnom Penh Urban Poverty Reduction Project mainly funded by DfID/UK, has provided health services in collaboration with the Municipal Health Department. It is also building a permanent health post at Anlong Kngan to meet the needs of over 20,000 people. An international NGO, Cooperation Services International-Cambodia, is providing medical services at Anlong Kaung.

The relocation process has been further complicated by the arrival at the relocation sites of hundreds of other poor families, some claiming that they were unable to pay the bribes charged by local officials to get on the lists and others who have come from other parts of Phnom Penh seeking a free plot of land and a house. Their expectations were probably raised by the Governor's announcements in early December that the city and other donors would be providing very high quality housing for those families that moved out to the new sites. Though 2 months have elapsed no houses have materialised.

In mid January 2002, more than 200 families returned to the original fire site in Bassac in Phnom Penh as some because they could not obtain the plot of land and others because they could not maintain their livelihoods at the new sites. Some of the latter admitted to selling their plots to speculators who are buying up the cheap plots for future gains. In the meantime the Municipality has threatened to take back plots that have been resold or that have seen of vacant.

In the meantime wells and other forms of water supply have been installed on both sites. The UN-HABITAT Phnom Penh Urban Poverty Reduction project has provided 122 emergency toilets on these relocation sites. It has also organised meetings of Support Groups comprising NGOs, donors and welfare organisations to coordinate assistance to the victims on each relocation site. To address the two major problems yet resolved, livelihoods and housing, the project is engaging a sustainable livelihood expert and a low income housing specialist to work closely with the communities on the new sites. At the same time it is mobilising assistance from other local and foreign donors for low income housing finance support for the fire victims.