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Cambodian Royal Railway: A train leaving the people in vain

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

Nearly 10 years after the Cambodian Railway Rehabilitation project was approved, affected communities are still in the same dire situation that they were in since 2007.

The project was funded by OPEC (Fund for International Development), Government of Malaysia and a large chunk of the budget coming from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), amounting to US$ 42.00 million. As of the moment the railway is already operational offering several services including passengers going to different destinations of the country. In fact, large numbers of people who ride the train are tourist going to Sihanoukville, because of the beaches, tropical islands and the mangrove jungles of Ream National Park. The train is air-conditioned, with Wi-Fi and flat screen television. In case you get hungry you may order food and drinks inside the train.

Truly efficient if you do not know the background of the project.

In the ADB Compliance Review and Recommendations, Second Annual Monitoring Report to the Board of Directors on the Implementation of Remedial Actions for the Greater Mekong Subregion: Rehabilitation of the Railway Project in the Kingdom of Cambodia released last June 20, 2016, the bank claimed that “…they have made good progress on re-assessing and paying out deficit compensation for lost assets and additional payments for income support”, but that is not what the affected families are saying.

A resident of Trapaing Anhchanh, a resettlement site 5 to 6 hours away from Phnom Penh stated angrily that ADB and its fellow funders as well as the Cambodian Government lied to them by saying that the relocation site would be better than their current place; and that they will be given a compensation package that will help them get back on their feet as soon as they move to the designated relocation site.

To their dismay, none of the promises ever came true.


ADB is celebrating its 50-year anniversary next year but it appears that wisdom doesn’t come with age in terms of banks. A resident from Sihanoukville recalled the day they went and saw the relocation site. What they saw was a piece of land measuring 7x15 meters, with a small, narrow toilet with a blue door bearing the number of the house where a family would be settling.

The relocation site is 221.7 km away from Phnom Penh and with absolutely no means of earning money. When asked how they make their ends meet, the people in the area wearily said that they grow their own crops and raise farm animals, but this is not enough they say, what about our children? How will they go to school if one Tuktuk ride would cost them $2 dollars (8,093.62 KHR)? Most youths in the area no longer go to school and opted to help their families by doing odd jobs ranging from sewing rags to carrying heavy loads to the market just to bring food to the table.

In Battambang province, another relocation site approximately 293.9 km far northwest of Phnom Penh, a resident is hopelessly narrating how they go about every day with unclean rainwater using a catch basin that ADB digged for them. The same catch basin where 2 children died while fetching water for their families in 2010, just four days after they moved to the resettlement site. As a result of the accident, the basin is now being locked to avoid accidents.

In the CRP report, it was stated “In Battambang, the resettlement site gets its water from an artificial rainwater pond. The water is pumped to an overhead tank and then filtered before being delivered to the houses of the AHs. When the CRP inspected the water in homes on this monitoring mission, it appeared to be clearer than what the CRP observed last year, but it is only used for washing and cooking. However, the water in the pond is very low and given the current drought conditions, this water supply is likely to become dry soon.” Not only that, the report did not mention that the electricity being used for the pump to "filter" the water is coming from the community, which they collectively pay for every month; another unnecessary expense on the part of the relocated families.

An elder in the relocation site said that the ADB installed a solar panel to power the pump in 2013 but after a few months it broke down leaving the residents with muddy water to drink, they have reported it but nothing has been done until today. With their distance from the nearest market and the cost of potable water at $7-8 per gallon, it is another problem that they have to deal with especially for people who do not have a regular income coming in. A mother of three from the community showed us the water filter that was given to them so that they can drink the water from the catch basin. It was a white plastic jug, with a hard plastic layer that serves as the filter hat, which hopefully cleanses the water coming from the rainwater catch basin. But if one looks at the water inside, it still has some soil or fine sand residue and not totally clear.

LICADHO, a national Cambodian human rights organization with advocacy on health and have been helping families in the five resettlement sites for nearly 10 years stated that the water that is being consumed by the people in the Battambang relocation site is way below the World Health Organizations “framework” for safe drinking-water. In fact, even if the people in the area boil it before drinking, there are still bacteria and pathogens that might cause illnesses like typhoid, E. coli, Hepatitis A and rotaviruses. The group also added that perhaps the people in the community are already sick and they do not know it yet due to the location of the nearest hospital, which is 7km away.

A person with disability (immobile) from the same relocation site said that the ADB lied to her by saying that she will be much better once she transfers to the designated resettlement sites, that not only will she have her ‘own’ land with title, but will also be given compensation to begin her life anew, seeing her situation, she gladly agreed, but like the rest it was not what she expected.

She sadly narrated that she is now relying on hand me downs of the community for she cannot do anything, from food, water, hygiene and medicine. Before she can still earn a little by selling vegetables in the market since moving around is not difficult. When asked about her health, she laughed dryly saying that the nearest hospital in the area is 7 km away. If an emergency occurs it will not make much of a difference because she does not have money to be admitted to the hospital anyway.

With the ill fate of all the relocation sites just to give way to the Royal Cambodian Railway, the most appalling are the Poipet resettlement households. Located in Banteay Meanchey Province, 411.3 km from Phnom Penh, this is also where the Meanchey Dump Site is situated. The largest trash dump in Cambodia, and it is just a few meters away from the relocated community, worsts it is behind the Kilometer 2 Elementary School. When asked how they cope with the smell and the smoke of the dumpsite, the elementary students collectively answered that they just ignore it or cover their noses.

The school was actually where the original dumpsite was located and when the affected households came in, they moved it a few meters to give way to the families. But the smell, the smoke, the water seepage that affects the drainage system of the community is inescapable and needs to be addressed properly. One resident narrated that during the rainy season, the entire community is flooded with waters mixed with the garbage’s in the dumpsite and when it's summer, the streets, and the roads are dusty making it difficult for people to breathe.

In the CRP Report under the Resettlement Site Infrastructure Status, it was clearly indicated that solid waste management problem has been introduced but part of the access road to the site still functions as a garbage dump and that there is no action nor change since 2007.


The people from the resettlement areas are now asking the government as well as the ADB and its fellow investors regarding the land title that they promised 6-7 years ago. People are now alarmed that there is no news about the land titles despite their constant follow-up to the concern government offices. A cab driver from Sihanoukville fears that if they don’t have any land title, anytime the government thinks of a development project that will be situated in their area, they can be easily displaced again. He also added that in his old age with eleven family members he couldn’t endure another displacement again. Just last August 8 he joined the protest outside the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction asking for the agency to address their grievances regarding the land title and their insurmountable debts brought about by the lack of livelihood in the resettlement sites.

This problem has long been recognized by the ADB, in fact, VisionFund Cambodia – supported by the Government of Australia – has implemented a program to help ease the loan problems of the families in the relocation sites. But VisionFund will no longer continue its program and will end it this year (2016).

In the CRP Report, VisionFund Cambodia stated that most affected households do not meet the requirements or eligibility criteria for them to participate in the program. The eligibility criteria include adequate income earnings to be able to repay the monthly installments; continuous residence in the resettlement site; indebtedness level which should not be too high so that debt workout can be achieved within the financial envelope and the willingness of informal lenders to sign off the agreement.

Another problem identified by VisionFund Cambodia is the presence of informal lenders, who let the affected families borrow money using the resettlement plot as collateral.

This problem has been in every monitoring report of the ADB and several actions and follow-ups have been made by the affected communities, ten years is a long time; a long time to that could have been used to sort out and provide solutions to the 4847 affected families.


Written by Jen Derillo-Santos, NGO Forum on ADB's Communications Coordinator.


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