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Cambodia's urban goals run into challenge of building Angkor Wat 2.0

It wants to build 'smart' and 'liveable' cities to draw investment, talent and boost the economy, but lacks funds and coherent strategy.

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The Asean Smart Cities Network platform to support the creation of high-tech urban areas in South-east Asia has three Cambodian cities in its initial list of 26 pilot cities from across the region. These are the national capital of Phnom Penh (left), the historic city of Siem Reap and the city of Battambang.

CAMBODIA is building both "smart" cities and "liveable" cities under a mishmash of well-meaning plans that aim to attract investment and talent, create new production and service ecosystems, and develop supply chains. There is no shortage of good advice, but funds and a coherent strategy are scarce.

Tales of constructing Cambodian cities started about 10 years ago when the Cambodian authorities launched a futuristic "Samdech Techo Hun Sen Dragon City", named after Prime Minister Hun Sen's royal title and zodiac sign. They called for US$80 billion in investment to build the new capital which consisted of a combination of Angkor Wat-like structures ringed by water bodies and traditional Chinese architecture.

The Dragon City, which was supposed to have stood on a 35,000-hectare urban sprawl on the eastern bank of the Tonle Sap River that flows through Phnom Penh, has seen some progress. The Cambodian government had originally hoped that Chinese state and private investments would power the project whose brochure featured Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Hun Sen flanking its Angkor-style spires.

The Cambodian secretary of state in the Land Ministry, Phuoeng Sophean, has reportedly said there were difficulties in getting the Chinese government to invest because the project was not "attractive enough".

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A chief deterrent is that foreigners cannot own land in Cambodia, but they can own buildings in collaboration with local partners. Investors are also cagey because of uncertain demand for space for business, educational and residential buildings.

Nonetheless, some buildings have come up within the Dragon City, but fall short of the original vision.

The second chapter of the saga began with the announcement of the Asean Smart Cities Network (ASCN) in April 2018 as a platform to support the creation of high-tech urban areas in South-east Asia, which has three Cambodian cities in its initial list of 26 pilot cities from across the region. These are the national capital of Phnom Penh, the historic city of Siem Reap where the Angkor Wat temples are located, and the city of Battambang that was founded by the Khmer Empire in the 11th century.

The third chapter started in October 2019 with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) formulating a more realistic concept of "liveable" cities as part of the bank's strategy focusing on "comprehensive development of a few priority secondary cities with potential for significant economic activity, such as the border cities of Bavet and Poipet, or tourism centres such as Kampot, Siem Reap, and Battambang". Its report, Cambodia, 2019-2023 - Inclusive Pathways to a Competitive Economy, stated that its development partners would work in other towns of Cambodia.

GRAND DESIGNS

The ADB aims to help create cities that are attractive to local and international businesses by supporting city administrations with spatial planning, zoning, urban management, infrastructure development and financing mechanisms to eventually make the cities financially self-reliant.

The people of Cambodia would certainly like to see these dreams come true. But they still have memories of the decade-old Dragon City that progressed sluggishly until it recently received a fresh impetus.

This brings us to chapter four. There is a revival of investor interest in building cities but on a much smaller scale than the original Dragon City. In August this year, the Cambodian asset and real estate management firm, ING Holdings, signed an agreement to develop a modern commercial complex also known as Dragon City along with the Causeway Bay Group and Sino Bay Construction from Hongkong.

The agreement commits the Cambodian and Hongkong companies to develop the Dragon City in Beong Cheung Ek and Tum Pun area on 5.4 hectares along Samdech Techo Hun Sen Boulevard starting in 2020. It may later be expanded to 25 hectares.

It is not clear whether this project will go ahead because just three months before the signing of the agreement by the three companies, the government decided in May to revoke five land titles given to tycoon Ing Bun Hoaw after his company, ING Holdings, failed to develop infrastructure along Boeng Choeung Ek lake and erect a satellite city in Phnom Penh and Kandal province's Takhmao city.

This brings us back to the more realistic work being done by the ADB which is aiming for social inclusiveness by creating affordable housing, all-weather infrastructure and safe and efficient transport services, including waterways that are designed to connect workers to jobs and thus help reduce disparities caused by gender inequality, poverty or disability.

A critical aspect of building such "liveable" and competitive cities is to provide a reliable supply of electricity to homes and industries, which is not the case at present as supply can be erratic. The bank has begun investing in solar energy through competitive tenders promoting public-private partnerships that are setting competitive and lower prices.

Earlier, the ADB had sought to support basic needs in secondary towns in 15 of the 26 Cambodian provinces by providing sanitation, landfills, water supply, wastewater treatment plants and roads. But rapid urbanisation without urban planning led to changes in designated infrastructure sites and implementation delays.

KEY IMPEDIMENT

The ADB's grassroots' level work has good chances of succeeding, but the more challenging task is to deliver on the mission of the Asean Smart Cities which needs to be properly coordinated with Cambodian authorities.

A key impediment is the absence of proper zoning and building rules, which has led to homes and factories coexisting, and wastewater flowing into residential areas. There is, moreover, lack of clarity on how the smart cities would be funded - by the government or private investments, or both.

A positive sign is a welter of expressions of interest from foreign private investors and government agencies to help Cambodia achieve its goals. For example, in March this year it was reported that Singapore cryptocurrency and blockchain developer, Pundi X, would work with the Cambodian administration to build a 100-hectare smart city in Phnom Penh. Zac Cheah, CEO of Pundi X, said his company would provide secure digital payment methods to all residents.

In February this year, Japanese officials said they would help Cambodia create smart cities that avoided the mistakes of Japan's early development in areas such as housing, traffic and environment. In another collaborative effort, Cambodia and South Korea have been cooperating since 2016 to turn the port town of Sihanoukville into a smart city.

In pursuit of creating multiple "Angkor Wat 2.0s", the Cambodian authorities will have to harmonise their assorted plans and visions into a coherent policy.

  • The writer is the editor-in-chief of The Calcutta Journal of Global Affairs