Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dam It

Laos is going ahead with plans to build the 1200 megawatt Xayaburi dam on the mainstream of the Mekong river just inside the LaosCambodia border. That is happening in spite of opposition by the other three members of the Mekong River Commission – Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Laos wants to be earn money by being the ‘battery’ of Southeast Asia. All three other countries are currently experiencing power supply problems so there definitely is a market for power, though if all planned dams were built the current shortage would turn into a huge surplus. Electricity consumption in Cambodia is growing at about 25% a year and as we all know from frequent blackouts for now the country can barely keep up.

There are valid reasons why a country would want to develop its hydropower resources. Primarily, it’s relatively cheap, and once the dam is built, the cost of power isn’t going to rise.

It’s indigenous, so doesn’t require the use of foreign exchange to purchase fuel from outside. Cambodia now gets 90% of its in-country produced power from burning fossil fuels. Vietnam is now supplying a substantial amount of power mostly because of the Prime Minister’s entreaties, since they have a close relationship. They’re doing that somewhat reluctantly since they’re experiencing their own supply problems. Cambodia is in the process of converting its power plants from relatively expensive diesel to much cheaper bunker oil – fuel used on ships – but it’s still very expensive.

Hydropower is renewable and clean and produces no greenhouse gases, its greatest benefit. It concurrently has lots of downsides and the social and environmental impacts should be taken seriously. There are always trade-offs: sometimes they are relatively benign and in balance make the location worthy of hydro development.

Dams often involve dislocation of large numbers of people or inundation of substantial areas of forest or farmland. The farmland is an especial loss, since if it’s part of the flood plain, it’s the most fertile, highest quality land. Damming a steep mountain canyon would involve the loss of forest and wildlife habitat. There’s also the loss of scenic areas. China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest, is a case in point: One of the most spectacular scenic areas in the world has been inundated.

In some areas reservoirs created by dams become toxic soups - China, again makes a good example. The raw sewage and industrial pollution that flows on to the sea in a free-flowing river is bad enough, but when that noxious concoction becomes trapped behind a dam it festers in a witches brew and is arguably much worse for the environment. On the other hand if the water is coming off an uninhabited mountainous area, the reservoir can be an important recreation site for boating, fishing and even windsurfing in areas that are sufficiently breezy.

In the case of Laos’ Xayaburi dam or any dam built across the mainstream of the Mekong river in its lower reaches, the greatest impact will be on fisheries. Cambodians get 80% of their protein from fish and a large part of that is from the Mekong/Tonle Sap system. It’s been estimated that 70% of the migratory fish in the Mekong would be cut off from their upriver spawning grounds by the Xayaburi dam. Damming the mainstream also threatens the natural flow of water up into Tonle Sap Lake and spells ruin if the Mekong’s overflow isn’t sufficient to fill the lake.

Part of the way dams work is they store water during wet seasons to be released later in the dry, thus evening out power production and minimizing flooding. But once again that potentially spells disaster since the Tonle Sap depends on flooding to bring nutrients up with the overflow of the Mekong. China already has several dams across its section of the Mekong but only 15% of the total flow comes from China. Nevertheless, that margin might be enough to cause the system to crash if too much water is withheld. By the time Laos builds the dozen or so dams it is planning across the Mekong the Tonle Sap fisheries may well be toast. One smaller problem with depending on dams for power production is that they produce the least power – in the hot dry season – when it’s needed the most.

A public official, when asked about the loss of fisheries from dam building, stated something to the effect that some people had to sacrifice so everybody could have power. Easy for him to say since he needs power for air-conditioning and other middle-class creature comforts, whereas the peasantry loses its sustenance.

The Columbia River in America’s Pacific Northwest provides a good example of the results of that kind of thinking. The Columbia is America’s second largest river. The dams built across it starting in the 1930’s provide the area with some of the cheapest electricity in America, but they also destroyed one of the most productive salmon fisheries in the world. Salmon are anadromous fish that live most of their lives in the sea but return to freshwater rivers to spawn. After three years roaming the seas they return to the very spot - within a very small margin - they were hatched to spawn and create another generation. Quite amazing really to think of fish knowing where they were born.

Before the dams were built there were between ten and sixteen million salmon a year returning to the Columbia. Some traveled as much as 600 miles upstream to spawn. Today there are about 100,000 and most of those are hatchery fish which are grown upstream in controlled conditions and shipped in trucks past the dams. A newsreel clip from the 30’s summed up the trade-off. It said, Say goodbye to the salmon, progress is coming to the Columbia River. So a minimum ten million salmon per year ranging from 20 to 40 kilos each were exchanged for cheap power. The electricity supply created by the dams was so much greater than regional demand that aluminum smelters, which use vast amounts of power in the smelting process, were encouraged to locate there with additional subsidies over and above the already cheap rates.

Before the dams salmon were so easy to catch that Native Americans fed them to their dogs and any half way decent fisherman could have as much as he/she wanted. They were so cheap to purchase that everybody else could also have their fill. Even today there are only about 4 million people in the Columbia Basin so there would’ve been plenty for all. Wild salmon today are very expensive. Farmed salmon are available at a more reasonable price – though still not cheap - but as an indicator of their unnatural lifestyle, they have to be fed salmon coloring to look real.

The dams could’ve been designed with fish ladders to allow salmon passage but that wasn’t considered important at the time. Today, there’s talk of removing the dams as well as spending vast sums to adapt the dams for the salmon. Though the giant ones across the mainstream of the Columbia are likely to be around for a while, many smaller dams in the area are being decommissioned to allow for the return of free-flowing rivers. Many were built with 50 year operating licenses and when they come up for renewal they have to be adapted to conform to stringent new rules for fish passage. In some cases the new rules are so expensive to implement, the utilities find it cheaper to decommission the dams than conform.

Today Southeast Asia is at the beginning of the dam building cycle. Everybody is all fired up about producing as much power as possible. Laos has plans to produce far more than they will ever need themselves. Cambodia has around ten dams under construction or in later planning stages in its smaller rivers, plus it has its own plans for damming the mainstream of the Mekong. China, with its deep pockets, is eager to finance them. This, needless to say, is a mixed blessing. When asked about China’s dam builders’ commitment to environmental protection, a public official remarked that they follow the same rules as in China so why worry? Some reassurance there.

Sinohydro, the Chinese company that’s building the Kamchey Dam on the Kampot River in the mountains about 12 kilometers above the city, was the builder of the Three Gorges dam in China. Because of shoddy work done there it is banned from building any more dams in its home country… but there’s always work to do in countries like Cambodia. The great Kampot flood of 2009 was caused at least in part by a breach in the dam, though both company and government vehemently denied that.

What we call the Kampot river is actually called Kompong Bay and is an estuary, a tidal river which ebbs and flows with the tides. The city sits right at sea level so is vulnerable to flooding when, as happened in 2009, a strong storm surge during high tide comes in from the ocean at the same time that heavy rains come off the mountains. During that flood a local resident heard rock trucks heading up to the dam all night and early into the morning when normally they quit at dark. A friend, who’s been in the area for 15 years sent one of his Khmer staff up to check out the dam: he managed to get by the guards to see a gaping breach in the dam, evidently caused by the heavy storms. Now there’s nothing unusual about flooding in Kampot, it happens with regularity, but in that case it was exacerbated by negligence, incompetence or miscalculation on the part of Sinohydro.

But beggars can’t be choosers. If you are desperate for power to fuel a rapidly expanding economy and somebody comes by with a fully funded dam proposal you jump at the chance. You are so grateful you don’t concern yourself with the fine print. Needless to say, the Chinese are skillful negotiators and they don’t build dams in Cambodia out of the good of their hearts. As a result some of the dams under construction here come with onerous terms which require the government to pay substantial compensation to the dam owners even when the electricity isn’t needed or used. While the main point of constructing dams is access to cheap power, it won’t be anywhere near as cheap as it could’ve been if the government had a stronger bargaining position.

Moreover, similar to the excess power produced on the Columbia River, Cambodia has plans for hydropower production that currently far surpasses its needs. The Lower Sesan River II dam which is nearing construction phase in Stung Treng province is a case in point. Vietnam is financing that project to the tune of $800 million. It will produce 400 megawatts of power, most of which will be exported to Vietnam. The entire city of Phnom Penh consumes about 300 megawatts so in comparison very little of that 400 mw will be used in Cambodia’s sparsely populated northeast. Meanwhile, the human and environmental cost will be substantial. To begin with, five thousand people will be displaced and 30,000 hectares of farm and forest lands will be submerged. In addition as many as 100,000 people will see their fish catches reduced. The dam will also impact at least a dozen fish species that migrate between the Tonle Sap and the Sesan River and its tributaries. Cambodia will essentially be sacrificing its environment and the livelihoods of large numbers of its people in order to sell power to Vietnam.  

Smaller dams like the Sesan II have less impact on people and the environment than the giant dams proposed for the mainstream of the Mekong but everybody likes to think big and bigger projects pencil out better so they’re always preferred by dam builders and policy makers. Small dams can have severe impacts on local people, but at least they generally don’t wreck the whole system.

It’s easy for a rich government official to say some people have to sacrifice so everybody can have power but what he’s really talking about is many people losing their sustenance and livelihoods so others like him can air-condition their mansions.

It’ll be a sad day if Laos goes ahead with its plans for the Xayaburi dam in spite of the opposition of its neighbors but it won’t be the first time an ecosystem has been unnecessarily degraded to the detriment of many because of the blindness of the few.

Monday, November 14, 2011

No-Sin-Tax Nation

A friend of mine recently came back from a short holiday in Singapore. He said it cost him $12 for a glass of draft beer. He’s not the type to frequent luxury digs so I assume that price is not unusual. It was six dollars when I was there twenty years ago. Why is going out on the town, drinking a few beers and having some fun reserved only for the well-heeled? Why is that most common of pastimes made off-limits to Average Joe.

An Aussie friend said a bottle of Stoly vodka, which costs seven bucks here goes for forty there. Bailey’s is twelve dollars here, seventy five there. Beer is equally outrageously priced there though I don’t remember the numbers. The only break you get is on wine which Australia produces a lot of. That seems totally unfair to me. Why should a product which would ordinarily be within reach of nearly everybody be priced so only the upper classes can afford it? Personally, I much prefer beer, but sometimes I like a little taste of spirits or liquors so I would resent being excluded from that simple pleasure.

We know why developed country governments love sin taxes, they always need money and there aren’t many people to object since they can claim they’re doing people a favor by forcing them to cut back on things that aren’t good for them. However, moderate drinking is not a health problem, in fact, studies have shown that two-beers-a day imbibers live longer than non-drinkers. A few beers after dinner can help a person relax after a stressful day, relieve the pressure, take the hard edge off of sometimes difficult life circumstances. Why should that relief be reserved for the wealthy? The additional stress from not having access to drink may be worse for a person’s health than the alcohol itself. In moderation, of course.

In Cambodia there are no rules about who can enter a bar, if you want to bring your two-year-old kid with you, you can. Is there something inherently evil about people drinking, joking, having a good time that a child shouldn’t see? Okay, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to bring a little kid to a strip joint, but to a place where friends gather could never be a problem. After all, they see the same friends drinking together at parties in their homes.

Yet in America it’s a terrible transgression to allow a 20-year-old to see the nefarious act of people drinking together. In Western society drinking is a widely advertised, commonplace activity. All that’s accomplished by arbitrarily restricting access is to reinforce the forbidden fruit syndrome. The more you’re told you can’t have it because it’s not good for you while ‘adults’ – those over 21 – are doing it all around you, the more you want it, and when you do manage to obtain it, the more you tend to binge and overdo it. Mostly I’m speaking of America, European attitudes are far more reasonable and relaxed.

There’s no minimum age for purchasing alcoholic beverages here, if you want to send your kid down to the local store to buy beer for you, you can. In most American states there are restrictions on who can sell alcohol and where. In Oregon, for instance, beer and wine can be sold at markets, but only with a special permit. Spirits, however, are only sold at state franchised liquor stores. Oregon even makes a distinction between taverns which can only sell beer and wine and bars which can sell everything. All that trouble to try to influence people’s behavior, but does it work?

Well, for sure, the average Singaporean isn’t going to go out to a bar for a few beers if it costs a day’s wages, but they may buy their beer in a market and drink at home, though it still costs a lot in relative terms. And that’s one point I’m making: many people will sacrifice to obtain those beers. It isn’t necessarily an addiction, but if it makes you feel good and helps you get through the day, you’ll give up a lot to have those few brews. Beer and wine are still reasonably priced in most parts of America, so people there aren’t deprived of that age-old pastime.

In addition to all types of commercial alcoholic beverages being cheap and easily available here, locals also have access to very low cost local drinks. Homemade non-commercially packaged palm wine is very potent – 40 or 50% alcohol – and very cheap. About 8 years ago a bar girl I knew brought back to the bar a 330ml coke can which had been refilled with palm wine that cost 500 riels or 12 cents. Today I think it costs double that; still a small amount of money to get pretty loaded.

So the question is, Do Khmers drink more because it’s so accessible? Does alcohol cause excessive disruption to social life because it’s so cheap? How does the impact of alcohol on Cambodian life compare to same on American life? Well, there certainly are plentiful stories of drunken Khmers causing altercations and disruptions but as far as I can tell, no more than the states. The only caveat is that many problems related to alcohol that do arise here stem from things like uneducated peasantry getting out of line or lax enforcement of drunk driving laws and just in general because of being a poor developing country and nothing to do with easy access.

Cheap alcohol is an aid to tourism since it allows many restaurants and bars to charge as little as a dollar for a local beer and even less in happy hour. Alcohol has its downsides, as all we drinkers know, but it’s only education that can make a difference there, besides as adults we ought to be able to make our own decisions in that matter.

Tobacco taxes are also very low or nonexistent here. Better quality locally produced cigs cost an average of 50 cents, imported brands a dollar, the down-and-dirty rough-cut local brands cost as little as ten cents. In the markets you can buy tobacco in bulk for a price that’s practically negligible. Compared to most American states where cigarettes go for upwards of $5 a pack, Australia, $14, some Scandinavian countries as much as $20, you can smoke as much as you want here without ever having to consider the cost.

Tobacco isn’t the same as alcohol because, contrary to alcohol which, in spite of its many and obvious drawbacks, has redeeming qualities, tobacco has none. That is a personal feeling backed up by 28 years hooked on tobacco. There are smokers who say they feel relaxed and derive pleasure from smoking. I scoff, but who am I to question their feelings? Nonetheless, almost everybody agrees that it’s a nasty habit, and that includes the vast majority of smokers, who wish they could quit.

Kissing a smoker reminds me of ashtrays, the smoke is not only foul smelling but causes cancer in non-smokers who are exposed to it – 3000 Americans a year die from diseases caused by second-hand smoke; they are mostly people who work in bars, the last place in America where tobacco smoke is still somewhat tolerated. There’s something about tobacco that’s intrinsically carcinogenic. You can get cancer just as easily from chewing it as smoking it. I also read recently that the way it is commercially grown; that is, doused with loads of poisonous chemicals – pesticides and herbicides - increases its carcinogenic properties.

Thus, in some ways, tobacco sin taxes are justified because the nasty shit really is bad for you, but those taxes are still discriminatory since they only impact the lower classes. Besides tobacco is addictive, as a result many people literally can’t stop regardless of the drain on their budget. I know people who say it’s easier to kick heroin then nicotine. One thing that facilitates that addiction is that nicotine is added to cigs to help get you hooked and used to a high dose.

I started at 12. My first drag came from a giant novelty cigar. It was the size of a foot long sausage. Okay, that was almost 60 years ago so I don’t want to exaggerate, but anyway it was far bigger than a typical cigar. Needless to say I didn’t get very far. I quickly started coughing, felt dizzy and turned ashen white. It didn’t take long after that though before I was smoking a pack a day of non-filter cigarettes - when I could rustle up the 25 cents they cost.

I had coughing fits as early as 15. I’d be vegging out sitting in front of the boob tube smoking one after another and just be hacking my brains out. I actually quit for a year during teen times. Not long after I started back up I was out playing soccer in gym class. I’d played before quite easily and I loved the sport but after smoking I was so out of breath I realized I was either going to play sports or smoke cigs but not both. Since I knew how hard it would be for me to quit smoking at that point I said goodbye to sports.

In the fifties nearly 70% of Americans smoked. Tobacco advertising was everywhere. The Camel TV ad claimed that 9 out of 10 doctors preferred their brand. Edward R. Murrow always had a lit cigarette going during his newscasts. Smoking made you feel big and grown up. Several times I’ve heard people suggest that people back then didn’t understand how bad they were, but we teens referred to cigarettes as coffin nails so we knew exactly what we were getting into.

I finally quit at 40 using the total immersion or overdoing it method. A lot of the years I smoked it was cheap, harsh roll-your-owns and I had reached a point where I was coughing nearly all the time. I sounded so bad my friends were afraid for me. I had quit several times early on but always gone back, but in the last half of my time smoking the only occasions when I didn’t smoke was when I was so sick I couldn’t possibly take another drag. As a result of that understanding I purposely made myself sick by immersing myself in it. I starting smoking one after another of cheap roll-your-own tobacco. When I ran out of fresh tobacco, I started rolling up buts, all the while coughing my brains out. I even got to the point of rolling up buts of buts before I was so ill the thought of taking another puff became inconceivable. It took several days to recover. I haven’t taken a single hit since then except when I’ve been tricked into it by dragging on a European style joint. Every time I do, at least partly because I take it in deeply not realizing it has tobacco in it, I’m full on into a coughing fit.

I tolerate tobacco smoke in bars and restaurants, though I despise it like most ex-smokers, because this is Cambodia where we don’t make a fuss about those things. For sure there’s no smoking here in buses and schools, etc., but otherwise it’s your life and everybody’s entitled to their own poison. I did it to lots of others over the years, so I can hardly complain. Anyway a little second-hand tobacco smoke here and there isn’t going to kill me.

I know people who don’t smoke when they are back in the West because it costs so much, but get right into when they come here, so high taxes do have a point. But if a person can take it or leave it based on cost then they probably aren’t the type to be uncontrollably addicted and they probably won’t smoke long enough or consistently enough to develop a disease.

To me one of the worst aspects of smoking is the slavenly hold the evil tobacco companies have over you. They’ve got you by the short hairs and you can’t do a damn thing about it. You keep feeding their overflowing coffers though you hate yourself for doing it.

In my opinion if you really want to smoke you should smoke clean unadulterated tobacco and roll you own. You may feel kindly towards nicotine, but you sure don’t need to inhale all the other toxic chemicals that commercial tobacco is laced with. If you are rolling your own, you can’t smoke as many or as often, because you have to sit down for a minute or two to roll one up. Commercial cigarettes, with the ease of popping one in your mouth and the extra nicotine they are fortified with will also cause you to smoke a lot more than you would with clean roll-your-own tobacco. The tobacco that you can buy in bulk at local markets here was probably grown with agricultural chemicals but I doubt extremely much if any other chemicals were added to it. If you smoke a small or moderate amount of clean tobacco, you probably won’t get cancer, at least your chances are far diminished.

Meanwhile it’s a pleasure to be in a place where you can make your own choices and aren’t discriminated against because you don’t have a lot of money. They’ll probably get around to sin taxes eventually, but for now you’re home free here to indulge to your heart’s content.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kampot Chronicles September 2011

One of the things I always liked best about Kampot, Cambodia was the tall stately old casuarina trees that lined the riverfront. Their beautiful lacy conifer type leaves have a special grace about them. The trees, which I guessed to be about 60 to 80 years old, are actually a century old according to a local Khmer.

Every time I’d ride my bicycle along the river I’d get a warm grateful feeling, like it was a privilege to live among them. Over the nearly five years I’ve lived here, I’d often remarked to myself how great it was that the authorities here hadn’t tortured and emasculated them the way the old trees of Phnom Penh had been mistreated. So, of course, it had to happen. Far be it for Cambodians to see a hundred year old tree, nay a nearly kilometer long row of centenarian trees, as a venerable natural work of art. What were once fifty to eighty foot - 15 to 23 meter - tall, grand and beautiful trees are now 15 to 20 foot tall trunks with a few branches hanging off of them. Total uglification.

Ironically, even while they severely cut back the casuarina trees they left the parasitical strangler trees and branches in place. The stranglers seed up high in the tree and send their roots down to the ground. Eventually when there are enough roots surrounding the trunk, they merge together and strangle it. So parasite stranglers okay; beautiful old trees, mauled and ravaged.

In five years they’ll have a clump of green leaves to start to provide shade again and in a generation they’ll start to look good again, meanwhile every time I look at those emasculated trunks or even think about what they’ve done I get sick to my stomach, not to mention angry. At one point while they were doing their dirty work, I started yelling, at no one in particular, to express my displeasure. Two Khmers I talked to said they were dangerous: you know in the next ten or twenty years a branch might fall and hurt someone, as if there aren’t scads of more dangerous aspects of daily life in Cambodia. I expect they were mimicking the official line, though I’m afraid one of the authorities’ motivations may be to sell some of the very valuable lumber.

It’s not just on the river where they’ve gone on their arboreal rampage, in other places they’ve cut down old trees so they could plant neat rows of saplings. A century old tree can not be replaced with a sapling unless you want to wait around a lifetime for it to achieve the same level of grandeur. They did the same thing in Phnom Penh when redoing the riverfront. There were four very large old trees whose roots were encroaching on the embankment near Street 178. They couldn’t be bothered to design around them, they had to go. Even worse was the giant tree that once sat close to Sisowath at Street 118. It interfered with their sidewalk design so it too had to be axed.

To me every old tree is a precious asset, especially in an urban context where they provide shade and oxygen as well as calming green energy to offset the overwhelming sense of concrete, metal and pavement of a typical city. It should take an act of God to remove one of those trees.

I spent five years back in the seventies living in the mountains of southern Oregon, noted for its ancient forests, the small percentage that remain anyway. At that time the official mantra of the US Forest Service, in line with the logging industry, was that 400 year old trees were in the process of dying so should be cut down before the lumber was lost and besides they weren’t producing wood as fast as young trees could, so they needed to be liquidated (their word). Never mind that they might have another 200 or 300 or 400 years to live, they had to go. When there’s money to be made, all other considerations are secondary.

Leaving that sour, disturbing and depressing note, my favorite little burg is looking up,  though it’s kind of subdued now in the middle of September, height of rainy season. We had lots of rain recently, 10 inches came down in three days as a result of tropical storm Nock-ten. The official figures for Phnom Penh for September, the heaviest month for rainfall, is 12 inches so that was a real deluge. I don’t know what the official figure for Kampot is though I’m pretty sure it’s more than the capital. After 2.5 inches fell in the first couple of hours it just kept coming down in what I think of as a constant but light Oregon rain, alternating with tropical torrents. There was no sign of the sun for three days. The one difference to Oregon is that it’s always cold when it rains there, never above 68º F - 20º C, even in the middle of summer. You always avoid getting drenched but when it does happen here the air and water are so warm you really don’t mind it that much. Ironically enough, it hasn’t hardly rained in the week since the deluge.

Heavy rainfall is a bit problematical for access where I live. I do a lot of biking around town and the three worst roads I’ve come across are the ones I need to access my house. My place is about 50 meters from River Road about 200 meters from the new bridge. When I first moved in four years ago there was a small temporary pond at the intersection which would dry up not long after the last heavy rains. Most of the street frontage was ponds and wetlands. When property owners started filling in their watery places and the rain no longer had any place to go - there’s no drainage system - the pond began to deepen and take on seasonal characteristics. It got so deep I couldn’t drive my Camry through the center of it.

Last dry season somebody, or maybe it was the neighbors all together, got the bright idea to fill it in so they brought in several dumploads of fine river sand - probably because it’s cheap here - and it made a very nice, smooth road for the duration of the dry season. Unfortunately it turned slick as snot with the first substantial rains. The first vehicle to attempt to drive it was a small dual-wheeled truck; it slid over to the soft edge of the road and had to be towed out, nobody’s tried it since. There is a passage at the edge of the road for bikes and motos that’s doable but quite messy when wet. Meanwhile filling in the seasonal pond that once covered the road at the intersection of River Road and my connecting road, has now moved the water up to just before my house where the last pond, that is adjacent to my house, is located. Now heavy rains take all of the runoff for a large area into the last pond where it reaches higher than it ever has before and floods part of my yard in the process. As well, the road becomes a pond about 6 inches deep in front of my house. River Road itself is a foot deep in places.

There’s a lot of road construction happening all over town and River Road is kind of a priority so I assume it’s on their list for improvement and they’ll get to it next dry season. Problem is; often when they improve a street, they waste a lot of money making it far wider than it’ll ever need to be and so they don’t have enough money to make even minimal improvements to others that desperately need it. I have the same complaint about how things are done in Oregon, so that kind of waste is not peculiar to Cambodia; however, officials here do love asphalt seas. Kampot’s main traffic circle, for instance, is three or four times larger than traffic would ever warrant, unless you’re talking 50 years in the future and the city has grown to a million people.

There are several reasons why excessive pavement is a mistake. First, or course, pavement is expensive, there’s no sense in spending the money if it’s not actually needed. Secondly, it’s ugly; greenery is esthetically preferable and besides, usable by people. Thirdly, pavement is referred to as an impervious surface. The larger the pavement area, the greater the size of the drainage system necessary to drain off rainwater and thus the greater likelihood of flooding when the rain comes down too fast for the system to handle. The rain that falls on unpaved surfaces is easily absorbed into the ground. Finally, pavement, being dark in color absorbs heat making the city less comfortable and adding to global warming.

September, along with June, are the slowest months in regards to both expats and travelers and so the town is really quiet. Many of the bars are also very slow, though we still are able to get together live music jams two or three times a week. Most of the players are regulars but there are always people passing through to spice up the repertoire. I haven’t seen jams this good in years. I’ve been playing drums - congas or bongos, whatever is available - at every possible jam… I try not to miss one. When high season hits and all the snowbirds return it’ll be one of the best places to hear live music in Cambodia. I keep thinking Kampot will turn into a traveler hot spot like Pushkar or Hampi in India or Dali or Yangshou in China. I’m not sure I’ll like it when my favorite little town becomes an ‘in’ place and maybe I’ll need to abandon it and search out another great but undiscovered small town home. Meanwhile it’ll take some time before that happens and it’ll be fun to have a real scene here.

The old market which was built in the mid-sixties and then sat derelict after it was gutted by fire a few years later is finally being rehabbed. It’s really a fine old building. It’ll be really cool when it’s done and with all the new shops, restaurants and bars opening up all around it, old town will be transformed.

The riverfront promenade is within a month or two of being finished. Compared to its former seedy life when it was mostly unkempt grass with a few planters and the odd crumbling concrete bench and hardly anybody went there, it’s now very heavily used. The park strip between the old market and the bus/taxi station is also finished. All of the city’s traffic circles have also been upgraded. The main traffic circle now sports a 3 meter tall durian surrounded by other outsized fruits; it’s quite a nice sculpture.

Once they’ve finished all the park strips, they really ought to search out vacant places to establish ‘real’ parks: that is, places that are partly semi-natural replete with small forests, creeks and ponds and partly for sports with football pitches, tennis courts and basketball courts, etc. The people who govern this country have, I’m sure, all visited European and American cities where they’ve seen large parks like Central Park in New York and Hyde Park in London and yet there isn’t a single city in Cambodia that has a real park, except maybe Siem Reap where there are substantial undeveloped green areas.

Phnom Penh once had lots of lakes and wetlands suitable for park space - back in the 1960’s you could rent a rowboat to explore Boeng Kak Lake - but they’ve all been filled in and developed. The former undeveloped park at the tip of the Chroy Changvar peninsula, which was a spectacular setting for a large green space was given away for development. Even the greenspace surrounding Olympic Stadium is slowly being whittled away for development. A shameful 2% of the capital is in park space and that includes traffic islands like that surrounding Independence Monument, which is, absurdly enough, off limits to people. Have the country’s leaders never been to or seen pictures of Central Park and noticed that some of the most valuable properties in New York are those overlooking the park?

Fortunately, in regards to a small city like Kampot, you’re never far from the countryside so lack of parks is not going to impact so seriously on the people’s well-being. Not like Phnom Penh which is oppressively and distressingly being built up and expanding far from the city center with nary a thought to adding public space on the periphery. If you don’t live near the river or Olympic Stadium there’s nothing except a few noisy, polluted traffic islands for miles around.

One aspect of Kampot getting up in the world is that land prices have returned to the high levels of 2007. For three years my land was worth half what I paid for it. That rise in value is good for me since I’m now trying to sell it. I’ve discovered I really don’t want to be a gentleman farmer and go through all the hassle of building a house and maintaining a country property. I’m happy in my rental house on the edge of town.

If anybody out there is interested in buying a sweet little 5000 square meter piece of Cambodia, get in touch: my email is It has a view of Bokor, lots of fruit trees - some large and mature - and a well with sweet tasting water. It’s about 3 kilometers from Kampot and 250 meters from Sihanoukville Road.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Buses for Phnom Penh

The government recently announced it was signing a contract with a French engineering firm to design a bus system for the capital. The city is the only one of its size I’m aware of that doesn’t have a public transit system. This is especially problematical as Phnom Penh is becoming denser with high-rise buildings sprouting everywhere. The current non-system, relying totally on private carriers - motorbikes, tuk-tuks and taxis - is a lot more doable in a low-rise, medium density city than in a city with modern skyscraper-type ambitions.

Public transit will not be a cure-all for the capital’s traffic problems but it would certainly help. Motorbikes are small but they still take up more street space than the equivalent number of people traveling on a bus. Even if each motodop is carrying an average of two people, that’s 30 motorbikes to equal the capacity of a 60 passenger bus.

Buses have other advantages besides traffic relief. They’re immeasurably safer than riding on motorbikes and more comfortable; think about riding a moto in the rain or in the hot sun compared to a relatively comfortable seat on an air-con bus.

Phnom Penh did in fact have a bus system for a short six months back in 2001. It was an experimental system financed by Japan. Until just a few years ago you could still see the leftover bus stop signs and bus shelters along Monivong and Norodom. That system was before my time and I’ve heard conflicting reports of its acceptance by the population, but in general people were getting used to them and ridership was slowly increasing. It was ended because the government didn’t want to continue the necessary subsidies. Big bus systems always seem to require infusions of public money. The government, knowing how inefficient and corrupt it’s capable of being, let the system die rather than get itself involved in such a big and expensive project.

Fare collections in American bus systems usually account for only about 1/3 of operating costs. Municipalities charge the remaining costs to the taxpayer because the alternative would be worse. There’d not only be the additional traffic to deal with absent a bus system but finding place to park all the extra cars would be difficult. Nobody needs to be encouraged to own a vehicle; with few exceptions it’s what everybody wants, so in Western countries where people have the means, governments go to great lengths to try to entice people away from their vehicles on to public transportation. In addition to massive subsidies, they advertise and even plead with their citizens to leave their cars at home and bus it.

You can’t really sustain a dense urban area where everybody has a vehicle, though that’s mitigated somewhat when most vehicles are motorbikes. Still, even in Phnom Penh where they are the primary form of transportation, parking is an important consideration. Where I taught English a few years back they had just built a new six story classroom facility. Two of those floors are devoted exclusively to motorbike parking, and that space is crowded with them. Small as they are, there is no small cost in accommodating them. And witness the masses of parked motorbikes in front of every popular restaurant or shop. Within a few years at present trends with increasing numbers of cars on the road, the city will be swamped.

The only thing that makes the situation somewhat tenable today is the widespread use of sidewalks for vehicle parking; it’d be very hard to accommodate them otherwise, though at the same time, lack of safe, comfortable pedestrian ways discourages walking and thus adds to motorbike use. A few years back a friend who was living in Saigon told me he was forced to take a motorbike to go only 100 or 200 meters because blocked sidewalks made it impossible to walk and traffic is so much denser there. I’ve heard they’ve since cleared the sidewalks for pedestrians. Another friend, a Khmer, who’d spent some time in Europe, really enjoyed walking there. She was all fired up about doing the same when she returned to Phnom Penh, but was quickly discouraged from walking in the capital because it’s so uncomfortable there. At any rate anything that encourages people to use alternate means of travel; that is, other than their own vehicles, makes it better for everyone.

Motodops and tuk-tuk drivers will howl in protest at a competing bus system but there’ll still be a big place for them in the transportation picture since they do have two distinct advantages over buses: they’re convenient and fast. Leave any building in the city and unless the motodops already know you and know you don’t require their services, you are besieged by drivers seeking to give you a ride. Contrast that with having to walk to the nearest bus stop and then wait till the bus comes. And further, in place of snaking very quickly through traffic on a motorbike, buses are lumbering and slow and they spend a lot of time stopping for passengers. Moreover, instead of getting you direct to your door on a moto, you have to walk to your destination when you get off. Going short distances you could probably make two round trips on a moto just in the time you have to wait for the bus, though if they really catch on there might be enough patronage to have buses every few minutes. Buses also have negatives in terms of being noisy and smoky, though that could be mitigated somewhat in the future with hybrid buses.

Where buses would really make a difference is in long trips for the city’s low income people. For you or I spending 6000 riels to go from the center of town to the airport on a moto is no big deal, for the majority of the city’s residents it’s a great burden and severely restricts their mobility, especially in terms of jobs. Contrast that cost with the ten cents or 400 riels cost of going that far in Bangkok on a non-air-con bus or the 40 cents or 1600 riels on an air-con bus. Unless time were of the essence many if not most Cambodians would opt for the bus. For instance, going from Kampot to Phnom Penh, the cost differential between taking a (relatively) comfortable air-con bus and an absurdly crowded and practically demeaning minibus is only about a dollar and yet lots of Khmers have no choice but to save the money and ride rough.

Many locals who can afford long moto trips, but maybe just barely, are strongly encouraged by the economics to get their own wheels since the cost of fuel for the same trip would be relatively very small. This then also adds to traffic and the need for parking.

I’ve always thought the jeepney system used in the Philippines would be ideal for Phnom Penh. It’s basically the same as the minibus or remorque system used in rural Cambodia, but for some reason stops at the city’s outskirts. For those unfamiliar with jeepneys the first ones were elongated military jeeps left over after the second world war. Now they are manufactured in country. Fares are equivalent to 500 or 600 riels. As far as I could tell they are all privately owned and operated. They have bench seats on the sides which about 18 to 20 people can squeeze into. They can also pull out stools for passengers to sit on between the rows and, like in Cambodia, there’s always room for people to hang off the back or sit on top, though sitting on top is mostly found in the countryside, I don’t ever remember seeing topside riders in the cities.

While you do see big buses in Manila, jeepneys are still the major transportation mode. If I remember correctly they have designated places to stop, but they will also pick up anybody who waves them down. On a major thoroughfare there’ll be several lines operating to different destinations and they pretty much keep to designated routes. For instance, if the same concept were applied to Phnom Penh there might be three or four routes operating on a street like Norodom. If you were heading south from Wat Phnom there’d be one route heading east over the Monivong bridge, one going south to Tahkmau, another to Russian Market, etc. If you were going a short distance you could take the first one that came along, otherwise you’d have to wait till the right jeepney came by for the further destination.

I doubt very much if the French engineering firm will consider the jeepney/ minibus option. It’d probably never cross their minds, at least in part because it would never be a viable option in their own country because of the high cost of labor. However, in Cambodia, as in the Philippines, a minibus owner/operator working the city streets could easily earn a basic living - if moto and tuk-tuk drivers can earn their keep, minibus drivers certainly could also.

In addition, minibuses are more flexible as in the above example of jeepneys operating on a single street going to several destinations. A big bus system, especially in the beginning, is likely to have limited routes. For instance, the bus on Norodom will not likely branch out to different destinations, which means many riders will need to take more than one bus. And since transfer systems can get quite complicated, they’ll probably wind up paying multiple fares, all of which will discourage ridership. Considering the inherent disadvantages to the individual in taking the bus and the concurrent greater benefit to the society as a whole, the authorities have to do everything they can think of to get the people to use them.

In contrast to Asian cities, American cities tend to have well defined downtowns which allows for relatively more efficient transit systems since most bus lines converge in a central place, meaning most riders need only one bus to their destinations. When people do need to take more than one bus, having bus lines converge facilitates transfers. In Phnom Penh, downtown type activities are widely spread over the city, still it would help to have a centrally located bus station where a lot of bus lines, if not all or most, come together.

The capital’s other major transportation deficiency is the lack of a modern centrally located overland bus terminal that would be used by all the bus lines. The present haphazard system works but a single terminal would be a lot more convenient for riders. Now when you take an overland bus you have to know which company you want to use and their schedule. The experience of taking a bus from Kuala Lumpur’s central bus station provides a good example. First, it’s easy to find the terminal compared to Phnom Penh where bus stations are scattered all over town. Then you walk in and unless you really prefer one company over the others and know its schedules, you take the next available bus. With all the buses converging in a single station, for most routes you’d never have to wait long till the next bus leaves. Then you have all the different companies’ ticket windows lined up, making for intense competition. As I remember it, when a bus about to leave had empty seats, the ticket sellers would call out how soon their bus was to depart and offer discounts to use it. Finally, with a modern terminal all overland buses, with their attendant noise and pollution, would congregate off the street and also not increase congestion.

The ideal location for an overland bus terminal would be adjacent to the train station, that way transfers between the two would be facilitated. (There are no passenger trains now, but it won’t be long as the tracks between Sihanoukville and the capital are almost finished) For instance, you’ve just arrived on the train from Kampot headed for Kratie; you get off the train and walk over to the bus terminal and catch the next bus to your destination. In the present scattered system, you get off the train and then take a moto or such to your choice of several bus companies and hope your timing is good. Or you get off the train and head to the only bus company you’re familiar with even though you know the schedule and know you’ll have to wait a long time. With all the buses in the same terminal, there might be another company with a bus leaving in a few minutes. To top it off, for obvious reasons, a transit station where local buses meet should also be located close by.

In Portland, Oregon, my home away from home in America, trains, intercity buses and local buses all converge in a small area at the edge of downtown. The long distance bus station was previously located in the heart of downtown, but was moved to the transit center because the land was considered too valuable for a bus terminal and the noise, pollution and congestion the buses caused was a detriment to the ambiance of the area.

I wouldn’t expect Phnom Penh’s leaders to act on a suggestion like this even if they understood its value because it’d be way too complicated to implement and very expensive in terms of securing the necessary land. It wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t hardly any overland buses in the country because the roads were too bad. Very soon, with the country constantly growing in wealth and tourism expanding, the present non-system will become increasingly dysfunctional.

The municipality made a proposal/plan a few years back to relocate the overland bus terminals to the edge of town believing that would lessen traffic whereas the exact opposite would be true. Presently many people live close to one of the bus terminals, by locating them in the outskirts, nearly everybody would need local transportation to get there thus adding to traffic, not lessening it, not to mention forcing most people to pay the additional cost of the long moto or tuk-tuk ride to the bus terminal.

Anyway, any bus system for the city is progress.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Polyglot Nation: An Overview of Cambodia Today

Polyglot Nation: An Overview of Cambodia Today

The Cambodian people run the gamut of skin pigmentations from almost lily white to nearly black as African, but in contrast to America where people are hyphenated as African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, etc., here they are all Khmer: there’s never a hint of differentiation. Closer to home, in neighboring Thailand, people of Chinese ethnic background, even those who are only half ethnically Chinese proudly refer to themselves as Chinese, whereas in Cambodia, if the response of an older Chinese-Khmer woman I know is a valid indicator, ethnically Chinese-Khmer, when asked if they are Chinese, say no, I’m Khmer.

They also cover a wide variety of facial types. First there’s the round faced, broad nosed, medium dark indigenous Malay people, then the very dark, beak-nosed Indians who started migrating here more than a millennium ago, then the light skinned, slanty eyed Chinese who’ve come here consistently over the centuries. Those three basic racial types have mixed very easily since the first migrations so now most people reflect combinations of types. You see narrow eyes on round Malay faces, long Indian noses on light skinned faces and it’s still possible to see quite a few Khmers who look totally Indian or Malay or Chinese and that’s not referring to recent migrants.

That racial melding hasn’t stopped the general population from looking down on dark skin. They all want to be white which is undoubtedly reinforced by everyone who appears in Cambodian television having almost white skin. A lot of the women use various kinds of concoctions, some clearly toxic, to whiten their skin. The problem is it often gives them pale, sickly, leaden almost ghostly look, as well as a little lighter in complexion.

More recently were the European colonizers who added their genes over the last century to the point where, for instance, you can see dark skinned people with green eyes. Finally, today’s immigrants are now mixing with the Khmer people who are coming at least partly as a result of one of the world’s most open immigration policies. The majority of my expat friends have mixed children.

Anybody who wants to live in Cambodia is welcome, though I have heard that immigration officers sometimes try to extort large sums of money from Africans in the visa process. Officially, anyone in the world who thinks they can make it here is welcome to try, there are no restrictions. Moreover, there are no onerous requirements that you leave the country periodically to renew your visa, you can renew it indefinitely within the country. As a result Cambodia has a very diverse expat community that’s becoming integrated into the larger society. In a sense, this may compensate a bit for the loss of so much of the country’s intellectual community in the Khmer Rouge era: people who wore glasses, for instance, were targeted as enemies of the state.

Also targeted at the time as potentially disloyal were the country’s Cham people who are Muslims. While Cambodia is overwhelmingly Buddhist, other religions are tolerated with very few instances of discrimination or communal violence. As opposed to the situation in most other neighboring countries in which many Muslims have been radicalized and/or are participating in violent insurrections, they are completely at peace here. I’ve never caught a whiff of anger or dissent on the part of the country’s Muslims towards the government or any public action to suppress them. People in leadership positions sometimes complain about Christian evangelizing - Seventh Day Adventists are nearly everywhere, as you’ll not be surprised to learn – but there too, there is no public disapproval of any religion. This is all part of the welcome and tolerance Cambodia has towards all who live here or desire to make it their home.

Easy immigration is one of the several reasons why Cambodia had the seventh fastest growing economy in the world over the past decade. Not many people are aware of that fact because the country is so small and is starting from such a small base it just doesn’t register. There are now, I would guess, between 150,000 and 200,000 foreigners living in the country.

They have several functions within the economy. For one, many provide essential services like teaching English in which native speakers cannot be substituted by local teachers. They also are employed in the many non-governmental organizations trying to uplift the nation. Others invest in the country by opening businesses. It is very easy to start new enterprises and there are no requirements of partial local ownership. That’s created a situation in which there are often more businesses oriented towards the expat community and tourist trade than can be currently supported; they are generally ahead of the curve. But it also can happen that lots of new businesses will attract the customers.

Both sectors, expats and tourists, are growing rapidly so I expect the new entrepreneurs are hoping customers will eventually come. Tourism has increased tenfold since I first arrived in 2001 from 200,000 per year to more than 2 million. I’m constantly surprised at the number of ordinary looking, middle aged, middle class people wandering around Cambodia in contrast to a decade ago when only the most intrepid traveler would dare to come. In Siem Reap, gateway town to the Angkor temples, that’d be expected since it’s one of the great wonders of the ancient world, but to see them in Phnom Penh and other small towns is still a shock to me.

The majority of tourists in Cambodia come to take in the temples and visit no other part. Angkor Wat refers to the largest and grandest of the temples, which were built between the eighth and twelfth centuries, but there are about half a dozen other temples of breathtaking stature and lots of smaller ones in an archeological park that encompasses about 50 square miles –125 square kilometers. I spent three days wandering around the area, two days on bicycle, and still did not take in all the major sights.

The problem with having a business in Cambodia is the great difference between high and low seasons. Even if it does well in high season, it might only break even during the slow half of the year. If you’ve ever dreamed of opening a bar, for instance, with five or ten grand you can be in business in no time. If you don’t make a lot of money it also doesn’t take a lot to keep it going, though rents are going up in the more expat/tourist parts of Cambodia.

Finally there are the retirees like myself and others who have independent means so don’t need to work, who only add income to the country. We come for the low cost and ease of living: For as little as $150 or $200 per month one can rent a decent - but not fancy - apartment in the heart of Phnom Penh. The other attraction is the very open and friendly nature of the Khmer people. Khmer parents teach their little ones to say hello to every white face they see.

It isn’t just the small timers that are attracted to Cambodia. There are now nine mobile phone companies, though there will soon be some consolidation happening since the market simply can’t support that many. Still, do you have a spare $100 million and want to have your very own phone company? No problem, it’s your gamble. If you lose your wad in Cambodia, it’s no loss to the country. The country now has 31 banks… and, once again, there’s always room for more if you’ve got the wherewithal. Most are internationally based with eight or ten countries represented. It’s hard for me to imagine where the customers will come from - Cambodia itself certainly can’t support that many - but the ease of opening banks may turn the country into an international banking center. Eighty or ninety percent of transactions are in US dollars which I imagine would facilitate banking on a more than national scale.

The recent run-up in property prices until the crash in 2008 was also a major factor in the country’s growth. Property prices went through the roof and helped to create a construction boom, which is continuing, if currently somewhat subdued. Even now with values cut in half, per square meter prices in central Phnom Penh are equal to those in Seoul, a first world city with eight times the population. I too got caught up in the enthusiasm and bought a small plot of land but now, if I can find a buyer, I’ll be lucky to get back what I paid.

The run up in prices has resulted in a lot of displacement and land grabbing. The Khmer Rouge abolished all private property and then torched almost all the records, leaving land ownership very murky. In addition, whole families were wiped out, leaving many properties without owners. Out of that confusion, laws were passed which give anyone living on land for five years ownership rights. That worked fine when prices were rock bottom, but as soon as land became valuable, conflicts arose. In some cases, after villagers have lived on land for ten or twenty years, a well connected individual appears with paperwork saying he/she purchased the land ten years previously. The peons are powerless against the elite in that event. Urban squatters are booted off land they’ve lived on for a long time and are compensated, but not at anywhere near the current price level. Once the land is cleared, it is sold off to developers at high prices.

The other mainstay of the economy is the garment industry which now has more than 300,000 workers and is responsible for 90% of the country’s exports. That growth was facilitated by a quota system put in place by the US and Europe to insure that several countries could develop garment industries and not allow China take over the entire sector itself. The entire industry is unionized. Many manufacturers hate that and do their best to harass union reps, as you would find in a lot of places. On the other hand, some retailers, The Gap and Levi’s, for example, purchase from Cambodia specifically to be able to say that their workers have union representation and are treated fairly. That fair-labor part of the industry makes up about 20% of output. Workers are not shy about asserting their rights and strikes and wildcat strikes are not infrequent.

In spite of a recent small increase, wages are still pretty dismal at $61 per month for 60 hour weeks, but for many workers that still provides a much better income than they could otherwise obtain. Even at that paltry sum, many workers send money home to their families. The unions have been fighting for $93 per month, what they calculate is a living wage, but that’s very unlikely to happen soon considering the fierce competition in the sector from other even lower cost countries like Bangladesh. They may, in the end, be able to convince the government to raise the minimum wage to around $75.

Cambodia expects to export nearly 4 million tons of rice next year but the sector is barely developed so almost all of that is in the form of paddy, or unmilled rice. The country is working on upgrading its processing facilities so it can sell milled rice at international standards but that’s still a ways off. Also lots more can be done to increase the harvest. Yeilds are higher in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, world’s biggest and second biggest rice exporters, because they use a lot more fertilizer. They are also far more advanced than Cambodia in using irrigation so get three crops a year to one here. This is a very watery country so there’s no shortage of resources for irrigation.

While corruption here is all pervasive it seems to have little effect on the country’s pace of development and in some ways facilitates it. There are substantial informal fees involved with starting a business, but they make for a speedy process. In some ways living with corruption makes life easier. For instance, when I went through an agent to get my Cambodian driver’s license I was told I had to pay an extra $5 for an eye test since I was over 60. But, the fellow said, this is Cambodia so you don’t need to take a test only pay the five dollars. Passing an eye test would be no problem, but finding the office, possibly waiting around for service and especially dealing with bureaucrats with limited English language skills could be a real hassle, so a little corruption was a small blessing. Since I had a valid license from another country I was issued a license without having to pass any kind of test. And if you get caught driving without one a simple bribe of $5 or $10 will get you on your way. Since the license costs $40, it’d probably be cheaper to pay an occasional ‘fine’ than be totally legal. Anyway I prefer having all my paperwork in order.

All in all, in spite of endemic corruption, intense poverty and immense social problems, the country is at peace with less conflict and unrest than almost all surrounding countries. And in spite of many and glaring deficiencies it is also more democratic than most in the region. When polled eighty percent of the people approve the direction the country’s going in. Without getting into politics, the current prime minister, now in power for 24 years, has brought stability and growth in a very free and open economy and the future is looking good.