Siem Reap airport (Source: Cambodia Airports)

Infrastructure in Cambodia: Why Require High Quality Development?

| Sep 7, 2016    KOFFEE     , , , ,

Borin is a French/Cambodian engineer, currently based in Phnom Penh, working in infrastructure project financing. After studying and working in the Pacific, Africa, Europe, and Asia, he decided to come and get to know better his origin country. He has developed a special interest for Cambodian economical and societal topics.

Khmer version: ហេដ្ឋារចនាសម្ព័ន្ធនៅប្រទេសកម្ពុជា៖ ហេតុអ្វីបានជាចាំបាច់មានការអភិវឌ្ឍដែលមានគុណភាពខ្ពស់?

That’s the way it is in Cambodia”, this could be the answer given by any Khmer person to explain why infrastructure and services are often malfunctioning in our country, a developing one, a recovering one. During its recent history, Cambodia has experienced huge human lost, bringing the country nearly to year zero.


That’s the way it is in Cambodia, this could be the answer given by any Khmer person to explain why infrastructure and services are often malfunctioning in our country”

At the same time, Angkor Wat was made the symbol of Cambodia. Built 900 years ago, it is a source of pride for all Cambodians, as it is the model from an era when Khmer engineering was one of the most advanced in the world.

Indeed, during that time, Khmer erected infrastructures to overcome the changes of seasons, enabling them to ensure constant water supply. The increase of the number of rice crops strengthened the economy, developed the trade, and expanded the influence of the Khmer empire. At its peak, the city welcomed up to one million inhabitants at a time when London was smaller than modern-day Pursat.

Aerial view of Phnom Penh (Source: Milei Vencel, Wikimedia, CC 3.0)

Nevertheless, the nostalgia of a greater past should not overshadow the achievements of those recent years especially in terms of infrastructure. A couple of examples can be given, each of them achieved with a different model of governance: the first one being a state owned enterprise, the second a private concession.

Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA)

From its chaotic network in the 90’s, to being recognized as one of the best water company in the region (World Bank prize in 2004, or Stockholm Water prize in 2010), the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority has become in the last 25 years an industrial miracle in the Cambodian landscape thanks to the vision and the will of its former General Director Ek Sonn Chan. Nowadays, it delivers high quality infrastructures and services: drinkable water that meets the World Health Organization criteria, a network with a leakage rate that developed countries would envy – from 72% in 1993 to 7% nowadays – and that is already covering 100% of the central districts. Following this ambition, PPWSA should reach its goal of 100% coverage, and 24 hours access for the Great Phnom Penh by 2025.

PPWSA’s Niroth water production facility

Cambodia Airports

Another company that managed and developed in a tremendous way its infrastructures is Cambodia Airports, a public service provider for the three international airports of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville. In twenty years, from the time when cows had to be ousted from the runway before planes landed, to this year’s opening of the extension terminals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia Airports has brought the total capacity of its airports to more than 10 million passengers welcomed per year, along with the highest airport standards. Today, these airports are direct gateways to Cambodia for nearly 15 countries and play a key role in the development of tourism. Cambodia Airports employs today 1,500 persons with fewer than 15 foreigners in management positions. Its activities are controlled by an airport committee chaired by a representative of the Cambodian Government. The concession contract which ends in 2040 is also used as an opportunity to build local capacity in airport management in the long term.

Siem Reap Airport (Source: Cambodia Airports)

These examples are proof that even a developing country can have the ambition to implement the most demanding infrastructure and services, and that mediocrity is not a fatality. Other successes, in other sectors exist: Golden Rice (awarded world best rice in 2012 and 2013) or Artisans d’Angkor (UNESCO award of excellence for handicraft in 2012). They should be put forward as much as exploits from the past, and remind us that greatness can also lie ahead. Refusal of defeatism is the first step to avoid stagnation, and to demand high quality development in Cambodia. Therefore an answer but also a warning to those who would use this article’s opening quote “that’s the way it is in Cambodia”, could be “resignation is a daily suicide”, by French author Honoré de Balzac.

This piece reflects the views of its author only, and not necessarily that of the Politikoffee Media team and editors.