By Anushi Garg, M.R.P. ’20
For the months of May and June, I was an intern with UN Habitat in a rural district in Cambodia called Tbong Khmom, which is located along the Mekong River. Our field team consisted of two senior colleagues from UN Habitat who are Khmer (Cambodians) along with a team of five architecture students from a local university in Phnom Penh.
The largest issue for the communities in Tbong Khmom is the effects of flooding. Every year during the monsoon, the river levels rise to a height of 1–1 1/2 meters, and although most of houses are built on stilts, the ground floor gets inundated. Residents therefore have to rebuild year after year, forcing them to use all of their savings and keeping them in poverty.
Eight of the poorest and most vulnerable villages in Tbong Khmom were selected for the project, the goal of which was to identify and reconstruct the most vulnerable houses as well as those of families with elder residents, infants, or the disabled.
We first conducted community mobilizing workshops in each of the villages. We held elections and chose a team of representatives to enable better coordination and oversight, and gathered more information about sanitation and living conditions.
The second phase was community mapping. There are no existing maps of the villages in the area and vulnerable houses could not be accurately located. Thus, the aim was to map every house and, building on the knowledge of the elected representatives, we created lists of the families in each household. We used locally available resources to make the maps—ropes, chalk, bottles, plastic, and other materials. The team then walked around each village checking and detailing the new maps. The mapping stage was a great learning experience and engendered a strong sense of democracy and empowerment within the community, especially among the women who emerged significantly more knowledgeable and engaged.
For the next step, the team will design a prototype structure with community input and village-based carpenters will be trained to construct the new houses over the next several months.
Overall, the internship was an insight into local Khmer culture, resilience, creativity, and strong community. The experience was challenging but also enriching, and introduced me to the relevance of regional planning in rural communities. All major decisions were made in conjunction with the community, which taught me the value of community engagement, and the role of a planner as a facilitator and coordinator.