Monday, 28 September 2009

A bit on my work in resettled communities

When I arrived in Cambodia just over a month ago, one of the first things I set about doing was selecting study sites.  When I began doing research into the peri-urban areas around Phnom Penh a number of months back, my interest was piqued by the extensive resettlement programs that the government has been undertaking.  In the end, I chose two such resettled communities as the basis for my study.

Land tenure in Phnom Penh is complicated.  A document put out by the United Nations Human Settlements Program entitled “The Challenge with Slums” (2003), presents a good summary of the situation. 

There is no clear distinction between legal and illegal occupancy/ownership.  As a result of this lack of clear tenure rights, eviction is a constant threat to the majority of Phnom Penh’s low income settlers.  Most of these residents are officially considered squatters, although ‘…at least 75% consider themselves owners of the plot that they purchased from the local authorities or previous owner, who themselves may not have had ownership rights,” (UN, 2003).  In recent years, entire communities have faced eviction – often violently and without compensation or support – by the Municipality of Phnom Penh (UN, 2003).  These evictions are particularly common with more centrally located settlements which have been cleared away to make way for commercial development.  As a result, “…while squatter settlements developed primarily in the city centre until 1998, recent massive relocation programs have contributed to establishing peri-urban zones of poverty,” (UN, 2003).

 Photo 1: A central squatter community in a dilapidated building, slated for evictions (so I’m told – I haven’t investigated the matter further)

Many of the former slum communities have the primary advantage of location – residents have relatively easy access to the city for work.  Relegated to areas far away from the city, many resettled individuals suddenly find themselves with no source of income. 

One of my study communities was evicted earlier this year.  The government couldn’t find a suitable location to move the residents to, so they sought help from an NGO.  This NGO contacted a pastor who owns land just outside of the city.  The pastor agreed to let the community have a parcel of land.  Eighty-three households were moved from a settlement in central Phnom Penh to this location out in the country.    
Photo 2:  House in one of my study sites

Photo 3: Source of surface water in the community.  It was once considered a usable source of water (after treatment by filtering or boiling) but since the new residents moved in, it has become so heavily contaminated that no one uses it.

Back in Phnom Penh, most of the community members had access to piped water in their homes.  During the rainy season, nearly all households harvest rainwater for use in their homes.  However, few people can afford storage vessels large enough to make rainwater last more than a few days after rainfall.  So, for the long dry season, they must choose between heavily contaminated surface water, arsenic contaminated shallow well water, and expensive bottled water.  So, their water supply situation has, for the most part, declined substantially. 

Photo 4: Bucket used for harvesting rainwater

Photo 5: View of one of my study sites

The other community I am working in was relocated several years ago.  The land the community is on now floods, since a government agency blocked the drainage system.  The households there are more established and wealthier – as evidenced by larger houses and rainwater harvesting systems with significant capacity (enough to last several weeks into the dry season).   When rainwater is not an option, the majority of residents must purchase water from a vendor who brings a tanker truck of water to the community.  There are 2 deep wells present, but no one dares to use it for drinking – while past water testing (I do not have my own data on this yet) has shown that the wells produce water safe for human consumption, elevated manganese and iron levels make rice change colour when being cooked, causing residents to be very suspicious of the quality of the water.    

Photo 6: Flooding in the community

Photo 7: Rainwater harvesting jars.  The water is routed from the gutters to the jars using a hose (you can see a pop bottle being used to funnel water from the gutter into the hose, which is directed into one of the jars)

Photo 8: Deep well.  Due to high iron and manganese levels, people only use this well for bathing and clothes washing water.

I will be spending a lot of time in these two communities over the next few months.  More on what I’m actually doing there in a future post!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Settling in . . .

Two weeks have passed since I arrived in Cambodia. Two weeks down, only 14 left to go. I’m here doing the field work component of my thesis research for me Masters degree in Water Resources Engineering at the University of Guelph.

So much to do, so little time to do it in…

My first couple of weeks here have been spent getting settled in, and getting things going with my research program. Things have gone well on both fronts!

My work is based out of a local NGO here called Resource Development International Cambodia. The two facets of the organization that I am most familiar with are the ceramic water filter factory and the water quality lab. RDI runs the largest ceramic water filter factory in the country. RDI also has one of the best equipped water quality labs in Cambodia – one of the reasons that has brought me here to work with them.

Photo 1: View from my room at RDI

Photo 2: My first home here was a shipping container at RDI. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds …

RDIC is located just out of Phnom Penh, in the neighboring province of Kandal. I am living in Phnom Penh, approx. a 35 minute drive away.

It was a major relief when I found myself feeling at home in the city almost right away. It is a hectic and a little rough around the edges, but after a year in the sleepy little city of Guelph (and a year before that spent in the even sleepier city of Lilongwe), it is a welcomed change of pace. The streets are busy with motor bikes flying from every direction (rules of the road don’t seem to apply to them…), food carts of all sorts (from noodles to waffles!), monks wandering in and out of wats (temples), families playing badminton . . . such energy!

Photo 3: Need to take some photos of the city . . . For now, all I have this photo of some rooftops

My house hunting experience was an absolute joy, compared to the ordeal I went through in Malawi. I hit the pavement in an area of town I was interested in living in, and within a couple hours, I had successfully found myself a great little apartment.

Photo 4: Outside view of my apartment. I’m on the 3rd floor.

Photo 5: My awesome patio

I live in the neighbourhood of O’Russei. I very much enjoy it.

I am a 5 minute walk from the biggest, busiest, and most disorienting market I have ever had the pleasure of getting lost in. My little bit of Khmer came in handy when I explored it last weekend to find some household items to make my little apartment a little more homey. You can find just about anything in that market, from electrical supplies, to salted fish, to gemstones, to suspicious North Face backpacks.

As I type this, there is something that sounds like a choir practice going on in a building across the street. I hear the honk of motorbikes whipping past and children laughing. I am actually on a relatively quiet street for the area as I have a bit of a buffer between the many restaurants and bars in the surrounding streets, so I sleep soundly in relative silence.

I am working on learning Khmer. I am well aware of my (limited) capacity to pick up new languages, but I know how important it is for me to learn as much as I can! I am taking lessons when I get the chance, offered by an audio engineer at RDI. He is a good teacher, and I am picking some up.

Khmer is not a terribly complicated language, however, the pronunciation is a major challenge for me. For example, in my lesson today we spent a few long minutes going over the difference between “p” and “pb,” - Apparently, I kept saying “pbaan” as opposed to “baan.” My Canadian ears could only barely tell the difference . . . I have never before had to focus so intently on how we make the sounds when we do when we speak. How do we make a “p” sound vs. a “b” sound? How do I make something in between: “pb”?? I end up completely tongue tied by the end of a lesson.

Things have been moving along, research wise. I won’t go into many specifics here, but I will talk a bit about the general area of interest, being water supply and sanitation in resettlement areas around Phnom Penh. My first steps have been to scope out determine my study site locations. I've had some success, and will hopefully start ramping things up next week!

Photo 6: Scoping out a potential study site

Photo 7: Another study site.

More on that in the next installment…

Saturday, 1 August 2009

New journey = new blog name

It has been over a year since I've done anything to this blog.

Almost one year to this day, I returned home from my year long stint in the wonderful little country of Malawi. Since then, I started working on my Masters degree at the University of Guelph.

In a little over 3 weeks from now (!!!) I will be leaving for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I will be doing the field data collection stage of my thesis research.

As such, I decided that it was time that I dust off the old blog, give her a bit of an update, and prepare to get back into this whole blogging thing.

Here we go again!


Wednesday, 23 July 2008

More photos

If all goes as planned, I shall be leaving this lovely country of Malawi tomorrow. I'll spend just under a week in Lusaka before flying home from there.

Just thought I'd share some assorted photos from my last month in Malawi . . .
Photo 1: In May and June I went on many field visits with the cassava project. We talked to farmers, checked on progress, visited fields, etc. In this photo I'm standing with Mr. Chamaza-Banda, a TLC field coordinator, and a girl whose name I quite unfortunately have forgotten, but who works as a volunteer on the project. Volunteers assist the field coordinators in providing support to the farmers.

Photo 2: In early July, I had a series of EWB meetings to attend. Here I am holding a session by the lake - not a bad spot to spend a week.

Photo 3: Near the lodge we stayed at for the meetings was the Malawi cichlid centre. Malawi cichlids are collected at a few key points on the lake, and brought back to the centre where they are sorted and then kept in tanks until being sold. If you go to the centre directly, you can buy any fish there for 200Mk ($1.40), but no one would give me an indication of how much they cost when they're shipped overseas, which is where the majority of the fish are sent.

Photo 4: My tour guide at the cichlid centre

Photo 5: I have undoubtedly seen more stunning sunsets during my time here than I had in all my life previously.

Photo 6: Supports from an old pier (that's what I assume they area anyway) in Senga Bay, Malawi

Photo 7: The Southern Africa EWB crew

Photo 8: A couple weekends ago I joined a fellow EWBer, John Paul Portelli, on a short village stay. John Paul was rather intrigued by how strongly the children took to me - as a guy, he had never had nearly as much success interacting with the women and children as I am able to have. Quite unfortunate, really, as anyone who knows me knows that I'm a little hopeless in interacting with children, while he is fantastic at it!

Photo 9: Hanging out on top of a hill
Photo 10: My village host family

Photo 11: Kabindiza village

Photo 12: John Paul making mud bricks. The bricks are formed using the mould (as shown) and then left in the sun to dry for sometime before being "burnt" in an oven, to set them. Burnt bricks use a lot of wood to be produced, and are therefore yet another strain on Malawi's meager wood resources. Nevertheless, burnt bricks are much more popular than the alternatives (such as concrete blocks or other options, which are vastly more popular in neighbouring countries) because the first president of Malawi, Kamuzu-Banda, put in place policies to promote small scale burnt brick production as a means of increasing incomes in the rural areas.

Photo 13: A woman with her child. The little boy is munching on sugar cane.

Photo 14: Some cute kids with their toys.

Photo 15: Last week I went to visit my housemate Bon at his work - the National Food Reserve Agency. Malawi's national grain (i.e. maize) reserve stocks are kept in a few different silo complexes around the country. Bon works as a Quality Control Officer at the main depot in Lilongwe, where 48 silos are located.

Photo 16: Bon standing by a conveyor belt that brings the maize to the silos

Photo 17: As I've mentioned many times before, Malawi's main export crop is tobacco. While some tobacco farmers work on contract with the leaf buying companies (an intermediate step between farmers and the cigarette manufacturers) the majority sell their tobacco at one of 3 auction floors located in Malawi. The auction floors in Lilongwe are the biggest. It is a rather chaotic place! Edgar works for a leaf grading company, and kindly brought me for a tour of the facility.

Saying goodbye

Continuing with the theme from my last post . . .

I’m looking forward to seeing my friends and family back in Canada, but I’m going to miss my wonderful friends here . . .
It was really difficult to leave my friends, family, and boyfriend when I left for Malawi last summer. A year seemed like an impossibly long time to be away.

Now, the year has nearly passed.

I continue to be astonished by how quickly time has flown by. In a week and a half I will have arrived back in Canada, been welcomed at the airport by various loved ones, and whisked up to the cottage for a few days of relaxing and readjusting.

While I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone when I get back, I’m really going to miss so many people that I’ll be leaving behind here.

I have met some really amazing people here - some of the most kind, generous, and welcoming people I’ve ever known. It is hard to say goodbye, especially since I don’t know when or if I’ll see them again.

Some photos from a couple going away dos I've had in the past week . . .
Photo 1: Me being presented with a gift at my office going away party

Photo2: Last Sunday, I went to see some afternoon jazz at Chameleons, a bar in Lilongwe with my 2 house mates and a few friends (from left to right: Khala, George, Rex, Annie, and Bon)

Photo 3: The EWB crew (from left to right: Me, Megan, JP, and Heather)

Photo 4: After jazz, we went back to Heather's place for a delicious dinner

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Some things I'll miss, and some things I miss less

My departure date is approaching at an alarming rate.

I’ll be leaving this lovely little country of Malawi in just over a week from now, and will be flying back to Toronto from Lusaka on July 31st.

I really do feel at home here, so it is startling for me to consider how far away I will soon be from what have become normal elements of my life here.

While there are things that I’m not sad to be leaving here or that I am looking forward to returning to at home, there are just as many (and probably more) things that I will miss very much. I started jotting down a little list - I may add more to these later.

I look forward to regular hot showers, but I’ll miss bucket showers
There is something about a hot shower with good water pressure that is just so fantastic in so many ways. I don’t think I ever appreciated showers quite enough before. On the rare occasion that I get a good ol’ fashioned shower – water spraying down from an overhead nozzle with just the perfect amount of water pressure - I just revel in its wonderfulness.

That being said, I am also a fan of my usual bathing method – the bucket shower. My daily bucket shower requires just a small bucket full of water heated up on the stove (I’m too big of a wimp for cold showers) – so efficient! I have really gained an appreciation for just how little water is actually necessary to get oneself nice and squeaky clean.

I look forward to the way garbage is dealt with in Canada, but I will miss how little garbage is generated here in Malawi.
My Canadian self was initially rather horrified by the way that garbage is handled here. Take littering, for example. Since I was a wee child I have had the concept of littering being a very bad thing drilled into my head. So naturally, I would cringe at the sight of bottles and wrappers being chucked out of minibus windows or over one’s shoulder while strolling down the street. But, then I thought of how trash is really managed here. It is not like in Canada where there is a system for garbage collection, and where you can often find trash receptacles on street corners and elsewhere. In most cases, garbage is swept into a pile and occasionally burned. At my house, for example, we have a garbage pit in the backyard. In town, all the litter is swept into an open storm sewer and occasionally burned. The burning takes place indiscriminately – whatever happens to be in the pile is burned. Plastic, batteries, paint – whatever!

However, I love how much less waste gets produced here. At my house, so little of what we use comes packaged. The vast majority of our food comes from the market or a family member or friend’s farm. The consumable items we use most often – candles, toilet paper, etc – have minimal packaging. We produce a small fraction of the amount of garbage an equivalent household would consume back in Canada.
Photo: Pile of garbage in the parking lot next to my office. It gets burned every so often when it reaches a certain size.

Photo: Burning trash in the garbage pit in my backyard

I look forward to the wide range of vegetarian friendly products in Canada, but I’ll miss Tasty Soya Pieces and all the wonderful green veggies in Malawi.
Tofu, tempeh, legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans – yum!), veggie burgers, TVP, etc. . . the list of vegetarian delights that await me upon my return in Canada are nearly endless! For dinners here I mostly alternate between eggs and soya pieces (beans take tooooo long to cook!).

I do love “Tasty Soya Pieces” though. Tasty soya pieces are a magical Zambian product and are the best dried faux meat product I think I’ve ever had! I’ll fill up any extra luggage space with packages of ‘em! Plus, here there is an abundance of wonderful options when it comes to green vegetables - mustard, rape, pumpkin, sweet potato, and bean leaves, not to mention all the cabbage, Chinese lettuce, etc etc. It is glorious!

I look forward to leaving behind the cockroaches in my kitchen and mice in my ceiling, but I’ll miss house geckos
Even as I write this, I hear mice scurrying around my ceiling. I know that if I step into my kitchen, I’ll be greeted by cockroaches of all sizes scuttling about the floors, counters, and cabinets. So goes life in southern Africa! One kind of critter that I will be rather sad to no longer have lurking around my living spaces are house geckos. House geckos are cute little critters that you often find dotting the walls inside buildings here. They roam around with their handy little suction cup feet, and feast on mosquitoes and other annoying creatures which are seemingly omnipresecnt. Cute AND helpful – awesome!
Photo: My resident house gecko

I look forward to no more rainy seasons, but I’ll miss the predictable weather here.
Oh, the rainy season. How I was not sad to see it go . . . From December – March you can expect at least one sudden downpour a day. The open storm sewers in town become raging rivers while paved roads become flooded pools and dirt roads become muddy, impassible, messes. It is also the time of year that mosquitoes are out in full force, resulting in peak malaria infection rates.

I will, however, miss how predictable the weather is here. You pretty much know what you’re going to get. Back in Canada, for much of the year we have to rely pretty heavily on weather forecasts, as who knows what it will be like outside on a given day. I remember the last winter I was in Canada and living in Waterloo – I’d be in a parka one day, and fine in shirt sleeves the next. Plus, during the dry season here, you can expect beautiful sunny days practically every day - not bad :)

Photo: Ah, the perils of rainy season driving

Photo: A "road"

More to come next time . . .

Friday, 11 July 2008

Visit to the Chia Lagoon

A couple of weeks ago I visited one of TLC’s major projects – the CHIA Lagoon Watershed Management Project. A delegation from the Norweigan government, the current funders of the project, were in town, so the visit was largely meant to show them some of the project sites, and to launch a new initiative. Basically, we were trying to show off what we've done so far . . . Other guests included government staff and members of the media.

The Chia project is a big one for TLC. It includes a whole whack of activities – forestry, soil and water management, fisheries, enterprise development (helping farmers earn income from little specialized business endevours such as honey production or fish farming), etc.

Some background:
The Chia Lagoon is a sizable lagoon of Lake Malawi, a couple hours north east of Lilongwe. The watershed encompasses both a forest and a game reserve, and supports the livelihoods of 55,000 people.

The natural resources of the Chia Lagoon watershed – soil, water, flora and fauna – have been under threat from poor land use practices over the past 20 years, which has resulted in severe problems of erosion and water runoff. The lagoon suffers from major sedimentation problems, which have resulted from these practices and have significant negative impacts on the area’s rich biodiversity and the livelihoods of local communities.

The major problems causing natural resources degradation in the watershed include:
  • opening new land for agriculture
  • cultivation on steep slopes and stream banks
  • poor farming practices
  • uncontrolled cutting of trees for wood
  • setting of bush fires

Impacts on the watershed’s natural resources include:
  • Soil degradation
  • Degradation of natural vegetation
  • Declining water quality and quantity in the Lagoon
  • Reduced abundance and diversity of fish resources in the Lagoon
The project itself has several different components, trying to mitigate some of the key problems facing the watershed and their impacts. These components include forestry (requiring the raising and planting of tree seedlings), crop diversification, fisheries, conservation agriculture, and enterprise development. I’m just going to touch on a few of them here, the activities I visited with the delegation last week.

Improved Land and Water Management Practices

Photo One: A field under “Conservation Agriculture.” Conservation agriculture (CA) aims “to achieve sustainable and profitable agriculture and subsequently aims at improved livelihoods of farmers through the application of the three CA principles: minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations,” ( It offers opportunities to produce higher and more stable crop yields, and to reduce labor, time and production costs. This photo shows a field under conservation agriculture; the stalks from last year’s corn harvest have been left in the field, rather than being burned off which is what the usual practice would require. By doing this, the farmer will receive multiple benefits – top soil will be protected from being washed away; ridges in the field will be maintained, reducing labor time next season; biological activity will be encouraged, which improves soil quality; etc.

Photo Two: Dr. Trent Bunderson (4th from the left), the Regional Director of TLC, speaking to the Norweigan delegation

Photo Three: Another means of improving soil fertility is by intercropping (cultivating two or more crops together) your main crop (in this case, cassava) with legumes which fix nitrogen from the air and enrich the soil (in this case, Tephrosia candida is being used)

Photo Four: This tree has nothing to do with the project, I just liked it . . . the bunches of grasses you see leaned up against the trunk are used for thatching roofs.

Photo Five: A fisherman drying his catch of fish from the lake out in the sun. The project is working to improve the management of the fisheries in the lake and the lagoon to increase the sustainability of the fisheries.

Photo Six: The delegation and other guests paddling (the engine wasn’t working) out to the lagoon to check out fish cages where fish are raised. I feared disaster, but they managed to not tip! Fish cage culturing is used to subsidize fish populations in the lake and lagoon.

Photo Seven: Cute kids hanging out on dug out canoes on the shore

Enterprise Development

Photo Eight: An incomplete fish pond. Raising fish in fish ponds is becoming a popular income generation option for farmers in the area.

Photo Nine: Fish pond construction

Photo Ten: Woman with rice. TLC promotes the production of a certain kind of rice; the rice farmers in the project have a buyer who is happily buying all their rice at a good price.

Photo Eleven: rice!

Photo Twelve: more rice!

Photo Thirteen: Bringing in rice from the rice paddies

Photo Fourteen: Jars of honey for sale. Honey production is another practice we have going on in the project. We were told that the farmers had just recently collected honey, so the bees were annoyed and aggressive, so we were unable to check out the hives. Each jar of honey went for 300MK (approx $2.10).

The major event of the visit was the grand opening of a fish market. The idea for the market came from the project fish vendors through the Association who approached TLC for assistance. In the past, the fish vendors have been selling their fish by the roadside under no formal structure and with risks of road accidents. The market is expected to provide improved fish handling, processing and storage with reduced losses, improved hygiene and sanitation, and reduced risks of road accidents. There is also expected to be a diversification in terms of fish products offered (e.g., fish fillets, roadside restaurants). The fish market also has the potential to provide a stronger and more consistent price for fish sales with healthy competition between vendors that is based on product quality.
Photo Fifteen: The fish market

Photo Sixteen: Preparing dried fish, step one. Fish are split open and left to dry in the sun (under a netted screen) for 3 hours, after which time an oil/tomato mixture is applied to them prior to smoking.
Photo Seventeen: Preparing dried fish, step two. Laying out the fish over embers.

Photo Eighteen: Dried fish, ready for sale.

Photo Nineteen: Dried fish sellers

Photo Twenty: The fish market has the advantage of offering refrigeration, to allow for the sale of fresh fish.

Photo Twenty One: Fish market grand opening

Photo Twenty Two: Young girls selling little smoked fish to parked vehicles. They can be eaten as a snack (very tasty!) or cooked further.