In 2007, the world quietly passed a landmark: for the first time in our history more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. By 2030, an estimated 5 billion of the world’s 8.1 billion people will live in cities. About 2 billion of them will live in slums, primarily in Africa and Asia, lacking access to clean drinking water and working toilets, surrounded by desperation and crime.
Already these slums are huge. According to Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, nearly 80% of Nigeria’s urban population, or some 41.6 million people, live in slums. The comparable numbers in India are 56% and 158.4 million. Many of these slum dwellers are also squatters, lacking leases or legal title to their homes.
Not all slums are equal. By the United Nation’s definition, their residents are missing at least some of the following: durable walls, a secure lease or title, adequate living space, and access to safe drinking water and toilets. A fifth of slum households are missing at least three of these basic needs.
Despite these trends Cambodia remains a largely rural nation. A 2005 study on migration and poverty in Asia by the International Organization for Migration notes that “even if migrant jobs are in the risky informal sector, the gains to be made can be several times higher than wages in rain-fed agriculture.”
If the dream of a better life in the city persists. Overall, the world’s urban population is expected to grow at an annual rate of 1.78% until 2030, while rural communities shrink. Is this the future of Phnom Penh?
The Challenge of Slums / United Nations Human Settlements Programme. London ; Sterling, VA : Earthscan Publications, 2003.
Slum dwellers are receivers of the city’s negative externalities. Negative externalities are the costs of an action that accrue to people other than those directly responsible for the action. Research provides many examples of the environmental risks and damage associated with slums and squatter settlements in both developed and developing countries.The hazards identified in the case studies prepared for this report fall into the following categories:
Floods: Floods are the most frequent of all natural disasters.
Between 1947 and 1981, there were 343 flood disasters in which an estimated 200,000 people died. Between 1900 and 1980, 339 million people were affected and 36 million people lost their homes. Slums and squatter settlements are frequently constructed in low-lying areas subject to periodic flooding.
Phnom Penh Case Study
At the end of the Pol Pot regime, returnees to Phnom Penh were authorized to occupy buildings on a first-come, first-served basis. The few professionals alive occupied vacant dwellings close to the places of employment in the civil service. These new owners took many centrally located buildings, which some then subdivided and sold, even in the absence of formal titles. Once all buildings were occupied,people started to settle on vacant lands, creating the communities that are now considered illegal.
Low-income settlements were created by:
• rural migrants fleeing the countryside because of indebtedness or lack of economic opportunities;
• refugees returning from camps; and
• internally displaced persons.
Most came to Phnom Penh for economic reasons and settled close to where they could earn a living. Afterwards, the slum population increased through natural growth, through migration by relatives of existing slum dwellers and through seasonal migrants. People who move regularly in and out because of floods account for seasonal variation in settlements sizes.
Two types of slums may be recognized:
1 Squatter settlements: these consist of dwellers and housing units on illegally occupied private or public lands.
2 Urban poor settlements: these comprise low-income families with some sort of recognized occupancy.
However, there exists no clear distinction between legal and illegal occupancy in Phnom Penh as all private ownership of land was abolished in 1974, and no clear ownership system has since been implemented. Almost no one has full ownership title and most city dwellers could be considered squatters.
Slums on public lands largely developed along wider streets, railway tracks, riversides and boengs (water reservoirs). On private lands, slums tend to consist of squatting in dilapidated, multiple-occupancy buildings. Increasingly, there is also rooftop squatting in and around the city centre, while, since 1995, rural migrants have formed squatter settlements at the urban periphery on marginal public lands. Most slums are made of low-cost, recycled materials (paper, palm leaves and old wood). These structures are vulnerable to winds and heavy rains, and can be easily destroyed by fire. Those who own brick and cement houses are typically financially better off.
The land tenure situation in Phnom Penh is complex as there is no clear distinction between legal and illegal occupancy and/or ownership. Although, recently, some have been granted social concessions by the government, no family yet holds any certificate of ownership. Families with a registration book may feel more secure than those without,but it does not give them any strong claim to ownership.
These unclear rights of tenure make eviction a constant threat. Most low-income settlers are officially regarded as squatters. Yet, at least 75 per cent consider themselves owners of the plot that they purchased from the local authorities or previous owner, who themselves may not have had ownership rights. Transactions are recorded on handwritten receipts; although without any legal authority, it is often enough to claim compensation in case of municipal relocation. Renters are either short-term seasonal migrants or the poorest of the poor who cannot afford to purchase in a squatter settlement and rent on a weekly or monthly basis,
with the constant threat of eviction by their slum landlord.
Until 1999, the Municipality of Phnom Penh (MPP) kept a rigid position of not recognizing ‘squatters’ as legitimate inhabitants of the city, and its agencies did not support development activities to reach slum dwellers. Rather, they evicted squatters, often violently, without compensation or support to relocate. The municipal efforts to develop tourism in Phnom Penh led to the removal of many slum communities.
Nevertheless, in 1999, the MPP and UN-Habitat, after consultations with NGOs and community-based organizations (CBOs), developed an Urban Poverty Reduction Strategy (UPRS) to improve access to basic social and physical infrastructure, enhancing economic opportunities and strengthening participatory governance mechanisms.
In 2000, Prime Minister Hun Sen redefined squatter dwellers as ‘temporary residents’, while publicly recognizing their economic value to the city. He emphasized that helping them to rebuild new, liveable communities in locations outside of the city had become a priority of the municipality.This change of status coincided with a first step of implementing the UPRS.
The term ‘squatter’, long used in Phnom Penh to classify most inhabitants of low-income settlements, conveys much more than a connotation of illegality. In Khmer, it refers to ‘people living in anarchy’, and is strongly linked to immorality, disorder and criminality. At the official level, this gives the MPP grounds to refuse dialogue with squatters and not to acknowledge the legitimacy of their claims for public recognition. This official view is quite widely shared by the middle and upper classes, who consider squatters an aesthetic nuisance to the city and a threat to public order, all feelings based on the same stereotypes of anarchy and reinforced by a poorly informed media. Relations between the MPP and poor communities remain tense as, until recently, the MPP did not engage in dialogue with representatives of squatters, who were considered illegal. In this way, the most vulnerable populations are not included in the political process.
MPP governance is severely restricted by the limited authority to plan and finance its activities. Although the MPP officially gained financial autonomy in 1998, its budget remains constrained as a national law predefines all lines, the minister of interior must approve the budget and the national assembly ratifies it. In addition, the city has little power or incentive to raise its own revenue.
The UPRS, however, suggests that poor communities in Phnom Penh can improve their living conditions and prospects for human development, provided that:
• they receive security of tenure, education, training, credit and technical advice;
• the MPP removes legal, procedural, financial and practical barriers to self-improvement;
• urban poor communities, the government, NGOs and the private sector develop partnerships;
• decisions on policies and programmes that affect the urban poor are made at the lowest possible level of government, in close consultation with those affected;
• harassment by corrupt officials and the current lack of legal recourse by slum dwellers is redressed; and
• the general perception of the problem of illegal squatters rises above the level of ‘places where anarchy and confusion reign’.