Trash trou­bles

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - By Colin Meyn and Mech Dara

Can Phnom Penh sum­mon the po­lit­i­cal will to tackle its garbage prob­lem?

As Phnom Penh be­comes a mod­ern me­trop­o­lis, its garbage col­lec­tion ser­vice is fail­ing to keep up.

With the city re­liant on one com­bat­ive pri­vate com­pany, when will it clean up its act?

men here dis­ap­pear in late af­ter­noon. They leave their wives and chil­dren be­fore the sun sets on low-rise apart­ment blocks jum­bled to­gether along dingy side streets on the out­skirts of Phnom Penh. This neigh­bour­hood in the cap­i­tal’s in­dus­trial Dangkao dis­trict is the home base of the city’s sole pri­vate garbage col­lec­tion com­pany, Cin­tri, and hun­dreds of the work­ers hired to keep Phnom Penh clean.

By the time morn­ing rolls around, Cin­tri’s hulk­ing garbage trucks rum­ble back from the cen­tral districts of the cap­i­tal to the de­pot at the heart of this com­mu­nity. The driv­ers drop off the keys on their way out of the gate and gather in small groups for a few hours of drink­ing rice wine and play­ing cards be­fore head­ing home, a sort of night­cap in the mid­dle of the morn­ing.

It’s not the high life, but the pay is de­cent, thanks largely to a se­ries of labour strikes. Ouk Sang, a 38-year-old col­lec­tor for Cin­tri, lives in a tiny one-room apart­ment that over­looks a trash-strewn court­yard. Sang has four kids and a wife who live a few hours away in Takeo province. He man­ages to send home about $100 a month and spends about the same amount on life in the cap­i­tal. He made much more as a labourer in Thailand but couldn’t stand the months away from his fam­ily. Now, he is al­lowed take three days off each month to go home and see his kids.

“We work non-stop,” he said of the rest of his time – seven days a week, he heads out on trucks at about 5pm and re­turns some time be­tween 8am and 11am. Through­out the night, he and hun­dreds of fel­low col­lec­tors fill push­carts with rub­bish and re­turn to the trucks to empty them, again and again. “There’s just enough time af­ter work to take a shower, eat and go to sleep for a lit­tle bit be­fore go­ing back to work,” he says.

Cin­tri, which has had a mo­nop­oly on trash col­lec­tion in the city since 2002, has long

com­plained that it’s be­ing forced to stretch its re­sources well be­yond what was ex­pected of the com­pany when it first signed on to keep Phnom Penh clean. The com­pany has rene­go­ti­ated its con­tract with the city mul­ti­ple times, but it’s not clear what changes have been made, and Cin­tri won’t say whether the com­pany is prof­itable.

One can only as­sume that Cin­tri has won sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions – its trucks have kept pound­ing the streets even as the pop­u­la­tion has al­most dou­bled in size. The like­li­hood that Cin­tri is mak­ing money only com­pounds the frus­tra­tion when trash starts spilling onto ma­jor boule­vards dur­ing pub­lic hol­i­days, plas­ters the city when flood­wa­ters re­cede or sim­ply goes un­col­lected for no ap­par­ent rea­son. It also begs the ques­tion of why the com­pany has not in­vested in ba­sic equip­ment like pub­lic bins around the city, or in the safety of its work­ers by pro­vid­ing them with gloves or boots as they wade through the cap­i­tal’s refuse. In a city that aims to be a global draw for busi­ness and tourism, Cin­tri is not get­ting the job done.

But like a strained celebrity mar­riage, the oc­ca­sional pub­lic spat with City Hall – for­mer gover­nor Kep Chuk­tema once threat­ened to dump the city’s garbage in front of Cin­tri’s head­quar­ters if it didn’t im­prove ser­vices – is yet to break their agree­ment.

“I do not want to at­tack the for­mer gover­nor’s re­marks but just want to clar­ify that to­day City Hall has no plan to change the Cin­tri com­pany,” mu­nic­i­pal spokesman Meth Mea­s­pheakdey said last month, an ap­par­ent re­ver­sal from where things stood as re­cently as early 2015, when even the na­tional gov­ern­ment said it was fed up with Cin­tri.

“We be­lieve and agree that Cin­tri lacks the abil­ity to strengthen or ex­tend its garbage col­lec­tion and trans­porta­tion oper-

ation in ac­cor­dance with Phnom Penh’s ex­pan­sion, even af­ter it was given one year to im­prove,” said a pub­lic let­ter from the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters in Fe­bru­ary 2015.

Mea­s­pheakdey said City Hall was aware that things could be go­ing bet­ter but was no longer plac­ing the blame on Cin­tri, which was re­cently bought out by a Chi­nese in­vestor, ac­cord­ing to the firm’s op­er­a­tions man­ager. Cana­dian firm Cin­tec En­vi­ron­ment, which ini­tially con­trolled the firm with a lo­cal part­ner as part of its global hold­ings, did not re­spond to emailed ques­tions.

“What we are fo­cus­ing on with col­lect­ing the garbage is dis­cus­sions be­tween rel­e­vant par­ties, in­clud­ing Cin­tri and our com­mune and dis­trict au­thor­i­ties, to some­how find the ways or means to make the garbage col­lect­ing more ef­fec­tive, clean and timely than it is to­day,” Mea­s­pheakdey said.

It’s widely agreed that Cin­tri is do­ing a bet­ter job to­day of fol­low­ing sched­ules, co­or­di­nat­ing with City Hall and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with res­i­dents than it did a few years ago. But the job is only get­ting more dif­fi­cult as the city’s pop­u­la­tion grows and in­evitably cre­ates more garbage. Be­tween 2009 and 2014, the amount of waste en­ter­ing the city’s main dump site rose from about 800 to 1,475 tonnes per day, ac­cord­ing to the Asia Foun­da­tion, which spent about two years look­ing at how trash col­lec­tion could be im­proved in Phnom Penh.

The US-funded or­gan­i­sa­tion con­cluded that the only real so­lu­tion to the prob­lem was bring­ing in an­other com­pany to break Cin­tri’s mo­nop­oly. “Based on the teams’ assess­ment of the con­text, the re­vo­ca­tion of the sin­gle provider fran­chise is ex­pected to be the first nec­es­sary step in im­prov­ing waste col­lec­tion ser­vices by prop­erly link­ing pri­vate op­er­a­tors’ per­for­mance with profit (and thereby al­low­ing for man­aged com­pe­ti­tion within the sys­tem),” the Asia Foun­da­tion con­cluded in a re­port pub­lished in May 2016, af­ter its project had fin­ished.

The gov­ern­ment’s threats to re­view and pos­si­bly re­voke its ex­clu­sive con­tract with Cin­tri of­fered some cause for op­ti­mism, but that never hap­pened, and Phnom Penh was left with a rot­ten deal, ac­cord­ing to the Asia Foun­da­tion.

“Waste col­lec­tion is thus char­ac­terised by a sin­gle com­pany with a long-term, con­fi­den­tial con­tract that is dif­fi­cult to mon­i­tor, a fee struc­ture that does not en­cour­age im­proved house­hold waste col­lec­tion, garbage col­lec­tors whose con­di­tions do not in­cen­tivise per­for­mance, and com­mu­ni­ties that are dif­fi­cult to ac­cess and do not al­ways un­der­stand the im­por­tance of san­i­tary waste dis­posal,” its re­port said.

On top of its mo­nop­oly, the gov­ern­ment has al­lowed Cin­tri to in­clude trash col­lec­tion fees on peo­ple’s elec­tric­ity bills, mean­ing that res­i­dents have lit­tle op­tion but to pay up or risk hav­ing their power shut off, re­gard­less of whether their rub­bish is ac­tu­ally be­ing taken care of.

Ith Chenda, Cin­tri’s op­er­a­tions man­ager, con­ceded that Cin­tri could still im­prove its col­lec­tion, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas on the out­skirts of the city that can be dif­fi­cult to ac­cess or be­come flooded dur­ing the rainy sea­son, but said there had been a re­cent break­through in clean­ing up the city.

“The im­prove­ment is be­cause of the par­tic­i­pa­tion from au­thor­i­ties and peo­ple af­ter sign­ing an MoU [me­moran­dum of un­der­stand­ing] with dis­trict au­thor­i­ties over the garbage col­lec­tion,” he said, de­clin­ing to name the new Chi­nese in­vestors or say whether the com­pany was turn­ing a profit.

As part of this new plan, the na­tional gov­ern­ment has handed re­spon­si­bil­ity and in­creased re­sources to dis­trict gover­nors. City Hall is also step­ping up ef­forts to en­cour­age greater com­mu­nity co­op­er­a­tion. There are now signs posted through­out

Af­ter nine years run­ning an or­phan­age in Cam­bo­dia, Tony Geer­aerts has learned to tem­per his ex­pec­ta­tions and ex­pect grad­ual change. But when he was driv­ing down a dirt road in Kan­dal province last year and be­come over­whelmed by the stench of trash smoul­der­ing in the ditches along­side him, he didn’t want to wait.

“I de­cided that if no one else is go­ing to do any­thing about this, I will,” he told South­east Asia Globe last month. The re­sult was a project called Clean­ing up Archetype for Kids and En­vi­ron­ment (CAKE), which in­volves four vil­lages in Kan­dal, just across the river from Phnom Penh.

For the past six months, Geer­aerts has worked with a Cam­bo­dian su­per­vi­sor and a team of 14 trash col­lec­tors to try to show the com­mu­nity what it feels like to live in a place free from garbage and pol­lu­tion. They have built trash cages for pub­lic use, led com­mu­nity cleanups and spent hours talk­ing to peo­ple about the ac­com­pa­ny­ing health ben­e­fits.

“These are now the clean­est vil­lages in Cam­bo­dia,” Geer­aerts said, a claim that seems plau­si­ble when you visit the area, where the oc­ca­sional piece of trash seems out of place.

It’s a re­mark­able change con­sid­er­ing the project is only six months old. But it’s also ex­pen­sive to keep go­ing. Geer­aerts es­ti­mates that he spends about $7,000 a month on the project, and his best ef­forts to get the En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry or com­pa­nies on board have been fruit­less.

“It’s easy to raise funds for Lit­tle Hearts, be­cause ev­ery­one loves kids,” he said of his or­phan­age.

“But it’s im­pos­si­ble to raise money for garbage.” The Bel­gian has now shifted his ef­forts to work­ing with lo­cal of­fi­cials to turn the project into a pub­lic ser­vice, paid for by a small monthly tax.

It’s yet to be seen whether peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate the change enough to keep it go­ing with their own money. If the com­mu­nity buys in, it could of­fer a tem­plate for thou­sands of com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try that are feel­ing the ef­fects of ur­ban­i­sa­tion, pop­u­la­tion growth and in­creased con­sump­tion. If they don’t, per­haps memories of a clean vil­lage will even­tu­ally change their mind. the city warn­ing of fines for peo­ple who leave out their trash out­side of Cin­tri’s sched­ule, along with TV cam­paigns and posters plas­tered across res­i­den­tial ar­eas show­ing peo­ple how to prop­erly dis­pose of waste.

The av­er­age salaries for Cin­tri’s work­ers have also in­creased dra­mat­i­cally, from about $30 a month when the com­pany started to more than $150 a month these days. Thon Thoeun spent about four years as a col­lec­tor be­fore tak­ing some time off to go to a driv­ing school in his home province and re­turn­ing to take the wheel of a Cin­tri truck.

The 37-year-old has a crew of four or five col­lec­tors – dressed in ev­ery­day clothes, with­out any gloves or pro­tec­tive gear and of­ten in flip-flops – who ei­ther push carts down al­leys and smaller streets, pick­ing up rub­bish along the way, or stay with the truck as it crawls down larger streets, stop­ping at large piles that are quickly sorted through and tossed into the truck’s rear.

Thoeun said the big­gest change since he started work­ing for the com­pany has been the be­hav­iour of Phnom Penh res­i­dents. “The peo­ple un­der­stand more,” he said, adding that pub­lic ser­vice cam­paigns and threats of pun­ish­ment ap­peared to be pay­ing off.

Sah­makum Teang Tnaut (STT), an ur­ban ad­vo­cacy NGO, mon­i­tored 157 trash sites through­out the city from 2014 to 2016 and saw the sit­u­a­tion im­prove at 84% of those lo­ca­tions, while just 6% got worse. Trash was picked up more reg­u­larly and res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers were less likely to leave trash strewn about the street, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas that were be­ing de­vel­oped for res­i­den­tial or com­mer­cial pur­poses.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion has also set up a web­site called Ur­ban Voice on which Phnom Penh res­i­dents can flag lo­ca­tions where trash is pil­ing up – or places where flood­ing is

par­tic­u­larly bad, elec­tric­ity has gone out or traf­fic is backed up. Soe­ung Saran, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of STT, said the idea was to cre­ate a pub­lic fo­rum that could be used by the gov­ern­ment to iden­tify and re­act to prob­lems quickly.

“Trash is a big is­sue in Phnom Penh. If you don’t col­lect it for about two days, the city will be very smelly,” said Saran, ref­er­enc­ing a fact that any­one who has been in the city dur­ing a pub­lic hol­i­day can at­test to.

“This is a city of garbage,” said Ok Serei Sopheak, a good gov­er­nance spe­cial­ist who pre­vi­ously chaired Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional Cam­bo­dia. Af­ter decades of neg­li­gence, how­ever, the gov­ern­ment fi­nally seemed to be on board with ini­tia­tives to clean up, he said, cred­it­ing en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Say Sam Al with build­ing mo­men­tum be­hind en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and new Phnom Penh gover­nor Khuong Sreng for be­ing pre­pared to start en­forc­ing the rules.

“Along with flood­ing, se­cu­rity and traf­fic, garbage is a ma­jor is­sue. When I look on Face­book, I see young peo­ple start­ing to re­alise that they can’t live with all this garbage around,” he said. “But it takes time and nec­es­sary re­sources and po­lit­i­cal will, not only from the gov­ern­ment but the op­po­si­tion party as well.”

He added that en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues were never go­ing to be a pri­or­ity in post-con­flict Cam­bo­dia, but that vot­ers were now start­ing to care about things like proper waste dis­posal and liv­ing in a healthy city, mean­ing the rul­ing Cam­bo­dian Peo­ple’s Party and other groups had to re­spond. “It seems like it might be the right time to make all part­ners come to­gether and get a plan in place for the near fu­ture,” he said.

Vil­lagers take part in a CAKE cleanup

Clock­wise from top left: a pile of trash spills onto a street lined with bars and guest­houses in Phnom Penh last year; Ouk Sang at work on Phnom Penh’s streets; Sang goes about his grimy work in flip-flops A de­fused M18 Clay­more mine is dis­played near...

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