Returning to Cambodia after a hiatus of only 5 years I was surprised at how much more developed Phnom Penh had become. The city was now sprinkled with a number of tall buildings, none of which I can remember from my first visit. But it is easy to see that this is a recent phenomenon given the number of buildings currently being constructed. The Phnom Penh skyline is currently dominated by tall buildings covered in green tarpaulin that are still under construction. The city now has a surprising modern feel and given that the development was very recent actually appeared more developed than Hanoi, our previous destination.
But on venturing out into the suburbs of Phnom Penh and further afield you start to realise that Cambodia still has a long way to go and that the basic infrastructure is not yet in place. This is where there are stark contrasts with Vietnam which has developed a little more slowly.
On the first rickshaw ride out of city the quantity of rubbish accumulating in the adjacent fields was starkly obvious. The rubbish was dominated by plastic and I’ll speculate that this is the source of the problem. Out of the city cows and other animals are allowed to wander freely and can be seen sifting through the accumulated rubbish. Historically the waste would have been dominated by ‘green’ materials, such as vegetable and fruit peelings and paper, that could have been eaten by cows and other animals. Therefore, the livestock were used as an effective means of dealing with the waste products. Move forward to the age of plastics and suddenly the current disposal route is no longer suitable. The question is then whether an alternative disposal route has been put in place (doubtful) or whether it is a question of education to ensure that the accumulation of plastic does not have a long term effect on future generations.
I would suggest that education at least plays a part in the issue. During a recent visit to Chisaur Mountain Temple it was sad to see how such a beautiful place has been completely spoilt by the quantity of litter that was essentially everywhere along the paths and amongst the temples. On the far side of the temple there was a group of buildings where the monks lived. When looking a little closer, the active waste disposal method was found – essentially throwing the rubbish over the side of the hill! Not a great sign for the future as the plastic waste tumbled down the hill.
So what does the future hold? I’m not sure but I suspect the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. In five years the quantity of rubbish in the environment has observably increased and currently shows no sign of stopping. But there are the first signs that attitudes are starting to change even if this is primarily associated with the tourism industry. Recycling bins are available at tourist sites and hopefully the separated material is destined for the recycling market. Also, a number of upcycling products are on sale in the tourist shops and supply an export market. Strangely enough I’ve found upcycling products manufactured in Cambodia as far a field as in the bazaar in Tangier, Morocco.
Recycling is also starting to emerge, all be it, on a relatively small scale. When walking around the city I’ve seen plastic, aluminium and cardboard all separated out ready for recycling. So there are signs of hope. But the biggest thing is the attitude to drinking water with in the cafes and restaurants geared towards the tourist market. Water is commonly available ,sourced from large 20 litre water containers, that is free. This has a significant impact on the quantity of plastic waste generated in the first place and is a really positive step forward – one that other countries should also consider.
So I am hopefully that while waste disposal practices are still way behind where they need to be there are glimmers of hope. While it starts with the tourist industry hopefully things will start to transfer over to local practices. But the Cambodian government does need to ensure that there are appropriate disposal routes available and encourage people to use them. Otherwise the cost of dealing with the resulting pollution issues and effects on the health of the local population will be significant for future generations.