PHNOM PENH — The skyline of Phnom Penh is changing as fast as that of any Asian city. Yellow cranes gleam in the sun after late-afternoon squalls, towering alongside green-netted scaffolding wrapped around dozens of new high-rise apartment blocks going up across the city.
These are, literally, the green shoots of a building boom that made up a sixth of Cambodia’s economic growth last year. They are a sign of a transformation underway in the capital as Cambodia tries to catch up with its more prosperous neighbors.
But the rapid changes also highlight a challenge that has faced many cities across Asia in recent decades: with 200 million people having moved from countryside to city in East and Southeast Asia since 2010, how can cities manage large-scale urban growth in a way that facilitates economic growth without increasing pollution and traffic jams.
In BKK1, an upmarket part of the city, “the roads are too narrow, the area is not ready for so much construction, many small builders don’t talk to the municipality, there is no coordination,” said Sebastian Uy, co-owner of real estate agency Le Grand Mekong Property.
Phnom Penh’s rising skyline mirrors a counterpart in another, even poorer Southeast Asian country. Hulking new towers are being built in downtown Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital — anomalies in the eyes of preservationists, who want to retain the neighborhood’s old colonial veneer.
Planning, according to the Yangon Heritage Trust, could ensure that Yangon can emulate cities such as Hanoi and George Town, Malaysia, in retaining increasingly rare old urban aesthetics while also sidestepping the vortex of expanding slums, traffic jams, pollution, inequality and slowing growth that has diminished quality of life in other Asian cities.
“Poor infrastructure means high levels of noise and air pollution, rivers clogged with rubbish, piles of garbage in the streets, and lack of hygiene from congested sewers or water drains,” the Yangon Heritage Trust said in a recent report.
TRAFFIC SNARLS Yangon’s streets, like those in Phnom Penh, are suffering from increasingly heavy traffic. During the monsoon season, poor drainage and waste management can cause streets to become waterlogged in minutes during a deluge, slowing up traffic even more.
To help commuters get to work on time, modern Asian cities such as Singapore and Tokyo have built extensive and efficient subways. Others, such as Bangkok and Bangalore, have sought to transcend notorious traffic jams by erecting overhead rail systems.
In Jakarta, however, the Indonesian words macet and banjir (traffic jam and flood) are staples of the urban lexicon — and vital to navigating the crowded capital. Discussing the city’s congestion, Sandiaga Uno, a candidate for vice governor in Jakarta’s upcoming election, said its economic prospects have long been undermined. “Jakarta is growing, but not all can participate in the growth,” he said.
Driver satisfaction surveys published by Waze and traffic assessments by TomTom, a navigation equipment manufacturer, show that Jakarta and Manila have some of the world’s worst traffic.
While Cebu in the Philippines was ranked the worst place to drive in Waze’s latest survey, published earlier this year, five Indonesian cities ranked among the 10 worst. TomTom’s 2016 traffic congestion index ranked Bangkok the world’s second worst, with nine Chinese cities among the 25 worst. Another user-generated survey, published by Numbeo, ranked Kolkata, Mumbai, Jakarta and Manila among the five most congested cities in the world.
In Mumbai, it looks as though there is no easy workaround. “Technical solutions [can’t] solve [the] traffic congestion problem,” said Abhay Pethe, an economist and urban development specialist at Mumbai University.
DEADLY FLOODS The same applies to another persistent problem for many Asian cities — flooding. In mid-July, flooding across southern and eastern China killed more than 200 people and resulted in economic losses of 147 billion yuan ($21.9 billion) in the region, with Wuhan, a city of more than 10 million people, particularly badly hit.
A 2016 report by Christian Aid, a nongovernmental organization, listed nine Asian cities among the world’s 10 most exposed to flooding, with Kolkata, Mumbai and Dhaka topping the rankings. Bangkok, which was hit by devastating floods in late 2011, was the seventh-most vulnerable. A 2013 study co-authored by economists from the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development listed Guangzhou, Mumbai and Kolkata as the three most flood-prone cities in the world, with Bangkok, Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City, which abuts the Mekong Delta, in the top 20.
Jakarta is a sinking city: 40% of the urban area is below sea level, and subsidence averages 7cm a year. Flooding remains a serious threat — though the experience of Tokyo, where land subsidence has been reversed, shows that Jakarta’s situation could be managed.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo prioritized flood mitigation during his brief spell as Jakarta governor, before winning the country’s highest office in 2014. “Jakarta is in a much better position to cope with flooding today, compared to five years ago,” according to Fook Chuan Eng, lead water specialist at the World Bank.
Climate change and geographic factors are making cities more vulnerable to debilitating flooding, but city authorities are often either unable or unwilling to address local man-made causes. In Dhaka, Phnom Penh and Yangon, garbage blocks drains — even though these cities are in countries where waste generation is much lower than in wealthy cities such as Hong Kong.
According to Jolanta Kryspin-Watson, the World Bank’s regional disaster risk management specialist, “poor waste management, poor urban planning and unplanned/unmanaged urban development are unfortunately very common factors that have complicated flood management and worsened flood events in many developing Asian cities, Jakarta and Manila included.”
DIRTY AIR Mounds of waste and poor disposal methods are a form of pollution, if not as injurious to public health as poor air quality. Unsurprisingly, cities in poorer, rapidly developing economies usually have the worst air pollution, according to the World Health Organization, which says that 98% of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants in low and middle income countries do not meet WHO air quality guidelines.
Many of these cities are in Asia, where “there is a lot of combustion going, a major factor in air pollution,” according to Carlos Dora, coordinator of the WHO’s environmental health work.
Asia’s heady economic growth, consumerism and urban expansion are making for more polluted cities. “In some places it is the impact of increasing sales of cars, often old cars, many with diesel engines,” Dora said.
Another significant source of air pollution, the WHO contends, is the region’s tens of millions of two-stroke motorcycles. They can make traffic problems worse, but are often a fast-weaving alternative for commuters who might otherwise be slumped in the back of a crawling taxi or bus, sighing and wondering how long it will take to get home from work.
Simon Roughneen reported from Phnom Penh and Jakarta. Additional reporting from Nikkei staff writers Thurein Hla Htway in Yangon, Mariko Tai in Beijing and Takafumi Hotta in Mumbai.Show