Phnom Penh / Flooding as a Persistent Threat

Phnom Penh / Flooding as a Persistent Threat

Flooding has been an unresolved issue in Phnom Penh since the early centuries. Situated at the Mekong River Delta, Phnom Penh is surrounded by many water bodies, including the River Tonle Sap, River Basaac and River Mekong (Fig.1). The whole city falls in the downstream area of the above-mentioned rivers. The elevation map (Fig.2) below marks the low-lying area (<7.5m above sea level in blue; 7.5-10m above sea level in green) in Phnom Penh – which basically covers the entire city already. Flooding is not only damaging homes and properties, but it also kills people and blocks the circulation of a city.


“(in the event of a major flood)… 300,000 people would lose their homes… you can’t imagine what could happen here.”​

Van Molyvann, The City He Built, New York Times, 2005

Figure 1 – Water bodies around Phnom Penh (Source: Shelby Doyle, 2012)

Figure 2 – Elevation Map of Phnom Penh (Source: Bureau of Urban Affairs, 2004)

The following picture (Fig.3) was taken in 1934, showing two people paddling in front of the National Museum. Sarcastically, the situation has not been improved a lot. From this picture taken in 2013 (Fig.4), many households are still under the threat of flooding nowadays.

Pic2  Pic3
Figure 3 (Left) (Source: Nicole Groslier); Figure 4 (Right) (Source: Siv Channa)

Comparing the flooding maps in 2005 and 2012 (Fig.5-6), flooding areas in Phnom Penh have become more scattered, with an increase in total flooding area. This signifies the deterioration of flooding. Till now, the sewage system of Phnom Penh is still far from sufficient to cater the people living around.

Figure 5 (Left) – Flooding Areas Covered in 2005 (Source: Bureau des Affaires Urbaines)
Figure 6 (Right) – Flooding Areas Covered in 2012  (Source: Jennyl Estil)


Sokhean, B., & Henderson, S. (2013, September 30). Flooding in Phnom Penh Nears Emergency Level. The Cambodia Daily. Retrieved December 7, 2015, from

Doyle, S. (December 2012). Phnom Penh – City of Water. SAHMAKUM TEANG TNAUT. Retrieved December 7, 2015, from

IAU îdF (2007). Livre Blanc du Developpement et de l’amenagement de Phnom Penh. 176-179.


3 Comments on “Phnom Penh / Flooding as a Persistent Threat

  1. The problem of flooding and it unresolved is not only a historical fact but also a co-ocurring problem. To learn about the larger context, we need to know why the government fails to tackle the problem for so many years? Why didn’t the citizens move? Why the underground infrastructure system was incapable to handle the problem when it was first laid out? Is the upstream more important than Phonom Penh itself?

  2. For the change of pattern in the flooding maps, what were the reasons leading to a more scattered flooding area but an increased in the total flooding area? Did the serious and frequent flooding lead to some architectural responses from the vernacular building type of the city? Moreover, it seems that the problem of flooding was not tackled nor alleviated throughout the years. What were the major factors responsible for it? Apart from the countries in upstream intervening the river that contributed to Phnom Penh’s frequent floods, to what extent were the local government of Phnom Penh responsible for it? Were there any urban planning including sewage systems and other architectural measures done as the attempt to solve the problem?

  3. You may refer to the series of posts “Hydraulic Infrastructure Development” to get to know why the sewage system in the past failed and what has been done to tackle the problem. Other entries also addressed other kinds of reasons which contributed to the persistent problem in Phnom Penh. Thank you for your comments!

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