Cambodia Railway Resettlement

Feature | 1 February 2012

Cambodia's largest ever relocation program is a challenging operation that is starting to deliver on its promise of a better life for affected people.

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia─For Hong Chan, life is not perfect at the Sihanoukville relocation site. In July 2010, the Cambodian government moved her family and 13 other informal settlers next to a railway line in this picturesque southern Cambodian port city to a vacant block of land 8 kilometers (km) inland on the edge of town.

A year and half later, the 29-year-old mother of two says that her husband, a motorcycle mechanic, struggles to match the income he earned when they lived close to the busy oceanfront. Her 5-year-old son, meanwhile, complains about the 2 km walk along a hot, dusty road to his new school. At home, only one of the five wells located around the relocation site has useable drinking water. The rest, Hong Chan says, are polluted.

But she and her husband do not plan to move any time soon. The government is fixing the wells. Their new concrete house has electricity and a toilet, and is twice as big as the wooden shack they left behind. Best of all, if they stay here for 5 years, they will be granted title to the plot of land their house is built on. The plot is small, just 15 m by 7 m, but in a country plagued by land disputes following decades of conflict and upheaval, people like Hong Chan consider the government's offer a precious gift.

"I left school at seven and started working in the rice fields," she says. "I've never had much money. I did not think I would ever own land."

Minimizing upheaval

Hong Chan and her family are a part of the largest and most ambitious relocation program ever undertaken in Cambodia. Thousands of families have been asked by the government to move from settlements alongside railway lines to make way for a revitalized 650 km rail network that stretches from Sihanoukville, up to the capital Phnom Penh, and northward to the border with Thailand. The project is part of the $141.6 million Rehabilitation of the Railway in Cambodia project, supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which will create a rail transport route that will spur the country's economic development and bring the region a step closer to having a pan-Asian railway.

Those benefits will be enjoyed in the future. The impact on people's lives is being felt now. To minimize the upheaval, the government is moving only those people most at risk of passing trains - that is, those living within 3.5m of the tracks - but even so the number of households in that narrow corridor of danger adds up to 4,000, or roughly 20,000 people. The challenges inherent in such a large operation are many. Since the project began in 2010, almost 100 letters have been filed by affected households about compensation rates, a lack of services at the relocation sites, reduced job prospects, and other issues surrounding the project's resettlement process.

The government is listening. Assisted by ADB, they have significantly improved their complaint procedures and redress mechanisms. As of 30 November 2011, they have responded to nearly all - around 78% - of complaints. Meanwhile, of 3,683 affected households, 92% have now been compensated.

The improvements are visible on the ground. A new well was built at the Sihanoukville relocation site and government permission was given to residents to use vacant lands at the rear of the site to farm pigs and chickens. Electricity and water supplies have been installed at the relocation site in Batambang province. In Pursat province, the government is negotiating to purchase more land next to the resettlement site for growing vegetables. Meanwhile, it is expanding income restoration programs and injecting capital into microcredit funds managed by community groups.

"There are challenges and lessons in every relocation project," says IM Sethyra, director of the Resettlement Department in Cambodia's Ministry of Economy and Finance. "This is a big project stretching over 10 provinces. It's the biggest project we've ever done. The resettlement process is now almost complete. I believe we have made great efforts to help affected groups. "

'The first year is the hardest'

ADB Country Director Putu Kamayana describes the project as "back on track." He says the government has committed to uphold ADB's social safeguards - which, put simply, require that no one will be worse off than they were before the project began.

"We are working very closely with the government to ensure that this project remain compliant with our safeguards," he says.

It will take several years to get a true picture of the impact - for better or worse - on affected households. Resettlement experts say that the first year is often the hardest because people are still trying to adapt to their new way of life. But once homes are built, children are settled into schools, and jobs found, lives can change.

"People need support early but in a few years time they will be on their way in life and doing well," says Ke Bopha, 31, a sociologist from Phnom Penh who runs livelihood programs in three of the project's five relocation sites.

One of the most established relocation sites is near a remote railway siding in Pursat province. The people who moved here came from a settlement next to the railway line just 500m away. There, raw sewage flows between small, one-room shanty dwellings, many of which back onto a swamp. Malaria, the current residents say, is a common killer of children.

In contrast, the new relocation site has a clean water supply and each home has a toilet connected to a septic tank. Most of the homes have two rooms, and some have two stories.

Because the relocation site is only a short distance from people's old homes, says Ke Bopha, there has been minimal disruption to jobs or income. Livelihood projects have also had some success. A few people earn a good living grow mushrooms and selling them at the market. Others raise pigs or chickens. The community's wealthiest man makes furniture in the front room of his spacious wooden home. With Ke Bopha's help, the community has established a microfund that makes small loans to residents.

"I feel like a thorn has been drawn from our chest," says Mom Cheang, 48, who with his wife Chean Mom, 43, borrowed from the fund to establish their mushroom growing operation. The money has now been paid back, and their business is thriving.

Happiest are the children. While it's possible that the parents tell visitors what they want to hear, the children speak from the heart. A 12-year-old girl beams when asked what difference the move to the relocation site has made to her life. "I have a proper toilet for the first time in my life," she says. "Before we lived over a swamp filled with rubbish. I did not like it."

The same girl also has a desk, and an electric lamp to study by at night. She dreams of being a doctor. She will face the challenges of every 12-year-old growing up in a country barely a generation removed from genocide. University is far away in Phnom Penh and her parents will struggle to afford it. It is possible that she will not make it. But at least now she has a chance.