Phnom Penh (2001-2015) / Getting Even More Populous

Why do people stay in Phnom Penh despite heavy floods? Indeed, it is observed that Phnom Penh’s population has been growing, not just in a general sense but with Cambodians migrating to the capital from other municipalities within the borders. It was reported by The Phnom Penh Post that “the capital’s population grew from 900,000 to more than 1.4 million during the 10-year period.” It is more than normal for a developing country to have a growing population, but, why in such a vast scale when 18 percent of the whole Cambodian population is under the food poverty line, with many children suffering from malnutrition? (World Food Program, 2015)

Simple enough, Phnom Penh has to be an already-better choice for people to make a living. Firstly, flooding (and droughts) is not confined in the area of Phnom Penh (Fig.1). However, according to RFA in 2014, “the flooding, which began in July and has continued through August, has affected 12 provinces and led to 45 deaths; flooded about 80,000 rice fields, with an estimated 9,000 hectares (22,240 acres) of rice and 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of plantations destroyed.” Phnom Penh is the urban center of the country, which means it has rather less rural area, thus less vulnerable to natural disasters. So Phnom Penh is already a comparatively safer and more well-developed place for them.

Figure 1 – Widespread floods and droughts in Cambodia (Source: Radio Free Asia)

Then, “labour” comes as the largest motivation for migrants to stay in Phnom Penh (Fig.2). Due to natural disasters, patriarchal confinements, or eviction by developers or government, 12-15% and 40% of the whole population in Cambodia is landless or nearly landless respectively. These landless people cannot rely on agriculture to make a living. Farming and fishing needs ownership of lands but working in a city does not. They need to move to urban areas in order to get rid of poverty. Women typically work in the booming garment industry while male migrants mainly drive or do constructions in the town (Fig. 3).

Other reasons for migration include pursuit of higher/better education, marriage and other family linkages.

Figure 2 – Motivations for Migration (Source: Ministry of Planning, Cambodia)

Figure 3 – Jobs and Reasons to Migrate (Source: Bruno Maltoni, IOM PHNOM PENH)

If Phnom Penh is just a better choice but not the best choice, is leaving the country an ultimate solution? Nowadays, major destinations for Cambodian emigrants include Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea. Among the three popular choices, many Cambodians migrate to Thailand and the migrant workforce is largely, and in some cases exclusively, employed in economic sectors characterized by harsh and dangerous working conditions, low salaries and requiring low-skilled workers. Whether they can get a better livelihood highly depends on the middlemen they decide to approach when they migrate. In other words, nothing is guaranteed. Nevertheless, staying in Cambodia at least keeps a Khmer person in a local Khmer community.


Morton, E. (2015, January 27). Capital’s rapid urban migration. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved December 20, 2015, from

Maltoni, B. (2007, May 25). Migration in Cambodia: Internal vs. External Flows. Retrieved December 20, 2015, from

Finney, R. (Ed.). (2014, August 25). Cambodia Hit Hard by Floods And Drought (S. Yun, Trans.). Retrieved December 20, 2015, from

Cambodia | WFP | United Nations World Food Programme – Fighting Hunger Worldwide. (2015, January 11). Retrieved December 20, 2015, from

Report of the Cambodian Rural Urban Migration Project. (2012, August 31). Retrieved December 20, 2015, from

2 Comments on “Phnom Penh (2001-2015) / Getting Even More Populous

  1. It is a common trend for rural residents to migrate to urban areas to strive for better working opportunities and chances they can escape from poverty, but this inevitably increases the infrastructural and welfare needs in the city. This phenomenon may in some sense influence the flooding condition in the city considering the source of potable water the excessive population consumes and the extra dwelling needed to be constructed (if any). Though I am not sure what makes Phnom Penh less vulnerable to flooding than neighbouring rural areas, I wonder what is the maximum population the city can take without augmenting its vulnerability to floods or rate of urban decay.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.