Is Phnom Penh’s Liquid Waste Management Good Enough?

As Phnom Penh continues to grow at a rapid pace, questions have been raised over how to deal with the huge amounts of waste that are dumped in its waterways and on land
View of sewage canal in Meanchey district, Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Prak Chan Thul
View of sewage canal in Meanchey district, Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Prak Chan Thul

During the past ten years, Phnom Penh has seen substantial urban growth that has seen its population swell to more than two million, making up approximately 14 percent of the Cambodian population and an increasingly expanding metropolitan environment.

However, as a capital city of a lower middle-income country, Phnom Penh is confronted with many challenges. One of these problems is waste mismanagement as its population, industry, and housing rise in an increasingly crowded and active metropolis.

Waste management is a growing economic, social, and political challenge in urban areas. It is mainly caused by the expansion of people, industry, and urban structures, which intensifies both waste creation and the sorts and quantity of disputes that develop during garbage disposal.

Among the various kinds of waste, liquid waste management in Phnom Penh appears to be one of the most pressing challenges that the government should address.

Liquid Waste: A Critical Issue in Phnom Penh

Liquid waste management in Phnom Penh has been overlooked and neglected for decades, and its mismanagement has caused serious negative impacts on the city.

The liquid wastes generated by the metropolis are eventually released into the water and land. In Phnom Penh alone, managing liquid waste has become increasingly difficult due to issues pertaining to drainage systems, wastewater treatment, and overall waste management. These issues have led to flooding in the city, smelly sewage, unclean water, and the unwellness of the city.

According to the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology in 2016, due to industrial expansion, population growth, and especially burgeoning urbanization, untreated wastewater in Phnom Penh was produced at a daily rate of more than one million cubic meters.

This factor causes environmental pollution. Moreover, based on the GIZ’s studies in 2020, 3,000 small- and large- scale industrial firms produced the majority of the sewage water and effluent that flows into the Boeng Trabek and Steung Meanchey areas. Septic tank systems are not always installed in buildings, and the waste from all of these enterprises frequently enters rivers. (Meas Molika, 2022)

As Phnom Penh has rapidly expanded without a proper liquid waste management system, the sewer is blocked, which leads to massive flooding every year. (Buth Srey Nich, 2019). In 2021, Boung Tompoun canal flooded due to waste being disposed there in sewage equivalent to approximately 2,500 trucks of garbage and 12,050 cubic meters. It took Phnom Penh City Hall about four months to restore the sewage and drainage system in the area.

Insufficient and ineffective liquid waste management in the city causes a huge impact on public health and also natural disasters, such as floods and unhygienic environments, which may endanger people’s lives and impact their health in the city.

The liquid waste management system’s action plan is a vital duty that must be prioritized in in order to preserve beauty, welfare, and sustainable growth for the people.

Government’s Efforts and Ambitious 2035 Master Plan

In December 2017, the Royal Government of Cambodia issued a waste and sewage management sub-decree to ensure public safety, biodiversity, and public health by managing garbage and the wastewater treatment system.

Moreover, in June 2021, the government issued another sub-decree on water pollution control, which strictly regulates the discharge of wastewater from polluting sources into the country’s public sewage system.

In January 2023, the governing council approved the draft water waste management law, establishing an important foundation for maintaining and responding to the momentum of socioeconomic development as Cambodia has made consistent progress over the years, in accordance with the government’s Rectangular strategies.

The Rectangular Strategy Phase IV prioritizes four key areas: people, roads, power, and water.

Furthermore, there is the Phnom Penh 2035 Master Plan in which City Hall enhances the speed and effectiveness of giving individuals systematic land ownership. This master plan has laid out a strategic vision for growth and implementation to solve waste management in Cambodia, especially in Phnom Penh.

The land will be utilized at the district level to support the development aligned with equity and sustainability to provide an inclusive quality living environment (Orm Bunthoeurn, 2022).

The Challenges of Policy Implementation and Recommendation

Even though there is an ambitious 2035 master plan from the Phnom Penh City government, there remains a lack of a detailed land utilization plan and regulation to implement.

At the same time, an influx of foreign investment has contributed to the division of urban growth, which puts additional strain on the city’s sewage infrastructure. The lack of involvement of these foreign investors in the sewage management implementation further affects Phnom Penh’s sewage system.

It also influences the public health of people living and working in the city. Furthermore, thus far neither the proposed Water and Sanitation Law nor the National Policy specifying the fundamental operational or technical requirements for home sanitation has been introduced or implemented.

With limited involvement from local levels, urban water supply and sanitation remain primarily under the control of the government, despite the fact that the decentralization program has not been completely implemented in practice. Furthermore, some of the new policy proposals require many processes to be implemented, and the adaptation stage will also take time to be accepted, which would significantly impact the issue.

To address this, the government should encourage the involvement of private and international partners on a regional and international level to build recycling technology in the city.

This recycling technology would help recycle the waste produced in the city that ends up in the river or the environment and minimizes the harmful impact. The government should provide incentives and further cooperate with the existing development partners with technical assistance, such as JICA to continue dealing with this issue.

Additionally, the government should further cooperate with technologically advanced countries that have good development in liquid management systems, such as Germany and Japan, to develop liquid waste management in the city.

Moreover, the city should have creative methods that can recycle and convert polluted water into clean water with low bacterial risk, as a lesson learned from Singapore.

Additionally, the government should focus more on community-based education, especially for those who live in river bank areas. The education based in the community will raise people’s awareness of the category of waste to prevent disorderly waste being dumped into the river and further promote the significance of green energy businesses to the people in the city.

Lastly, even though the Cambodian government has implemented some measures to control the amount of waste produced by companies and factories in the city, these policies are still not really effective.

So, the government should impose taxes on the contributors or companies that produce industrial waste to build up a new system and develop the infrastructure for better liquid waste

management in Phnom Penh.


This commentary is written by fellows of the Adenauer Young Scholars for Excellence Fellowship 2023, as part of their assignment for the program. The views presented in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the editors, the program, and/or the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Cambodia and Institute for International Studies and Public Policy of the Royal University of Phnom Penh.