TACOMA, Washington — Housing poverty in Cambodia has meant that sustainable and affordable housing solutions are a concern of both local and international aid groups. Habitat for Humanity has been working to secure land for low-income households and provide durable and safe spaces for Khmer families.
The Current Situation
In recent years, Cambodia has made strides in economic development. Recovery rates should reach 5.2% this year. The nation is trending upward for almost all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the establishment of sustainable cities and communities. However, significant challenges remain.
With the increasing gentrification of urban centers, housing poverty in Cambodia has meant that many are living in informal settlements. There are almost 300 of these settlements in Phnom Penh alone, with many inhabitants deemed vulnerable persons. Victims of domestic violence are a particular concern. While the proportion of the urban population living in these conditions has dropped consistently since 2000, numbers have stagnated since 2016.
Knock-On Effects and Aggravating Factors
While a focal concern, informal settlements form only part of the problem regarding housing poverty in Cambodia; the quality of “formal” housing has also been compromised. An uneven distribution of wealth has resulted in disparities regarding water supply and electric utilities. This means that such resources are either minimal or absent for lower-income households.
A lack of water supply and sanitation is a prominent factor perpetuating housing poverty in Cambodia. Only one in three people in rural areas have access to safe drinking water as a result of insufficient government investment. Circular poverty is a growing problem as a result, whereby steep medical costs from hygiene-related diseases can run Khmer families into debt. Such factors have exacerbated financial strains on households, and up to 20% of families are currently without land (whether owned or leased).
Structural concerns surrounding housing quality create an additional risk factor. Inadequate training in the construction sector has resulted in 90% of workers without formal qualifications. This means that durable housing that suits local topography is lagging. The World Bank has noted that greater investments are needed to attenuate the “serious infrastructure gap” Cambodia still faces.
The Work That Habitat for Humanity (HFH) is Doing
Habitat for Humanity (HFH) has been working on sustainable and affordable housing in Cambodia since 2003. Today, the nonprofit has a five-year plan that aims to provide housing solutions for more than 6,000 families across six Khmer provinces. Although the COVID-19 pandemic hampered efforts at supporting these families, HFH has still managed to build 189 houses and repair 205 damaged homes during this time.
Although the HFH team advocates a holistic, grassroots approach to mitigating housing poverty, they regularly collaborate with local authorities to implement plans for housing development and land restitution. The latter has been a central concern of late, as locals have struggled to secure land tenure after the destruction of all cadastral data during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Recently, HFH has emphasized the need for “climate-sensitive” housing in view of more volatile environmental conditions. Cambodia is already considered by the UNDP as one of “the most disaster-prone countries” in the region and often endures flooding, monsoons and droughts. The organization has also teamed up with Cambodia’s National Disaster Management Committee to improve skills and education within the construction industry. Environmentally sustainable methods that HFH employed have included rainwater catchment and micro-drip irrigation systems, biogas cooking stoves and twin pit toilets that effectively manage waste.
HFH has also established a number of volunteer schemes, known as “Big Builds” in Battambang and Siem Reap. Hundreds of foreign visitors have participated in these schemes, which involve the construction of compressed ‘earth block’ and raised housing that is not only cost-effective but durable across the monsoon season and subsequent flooding.
Other Organizations Making a Difference
Other nonprofit groups have been working to alleviate the situation. Planète Enfants & Développement (PE&D) have succeeded in training 297 people in “sustainable construction techniques,” and a further 152 people in safe shelter awareness training. As such, PE&D’s approach is working to tackle housing poverty in Cambodia at the source, by educating and enabling locals to assess and minimize risks themselves. UN-Habitat has also been supporting Cambodian authorities and civilians since the 1990s to advance living conditions for the most vulnerable.
Sustained efforts are still needed to improve Cambodia’s construction industry, and government funding is imperative to broaden water and electricity supplies nationwide. With current economic trends looking promising, along with the work of HFH and other groups, there is increasing potential for success in fighting housing poverty in Cambodia.
– Cara Jenkins