National Roads built with Chinese aid under fire

As Cambodia undergoes an infrastructure overhaul primarily fuelled by loans and foreign aid dependence, some Cambodians say that efforts have been met with mixed results, often highlighting inadequately delivered Chinese projects.

Bun Thoeun, 39, a taxi driver who has ferried passengers back and forth along National Road 6 from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap for the last ten years, explained that despite improvements, he still has to cope with overwhelming dust, potholes, and uneven surfaces as the road deteriorates, despite the road being freshly paved over the last couple of years.

“I only know that the road construction company is from China,” he said, wishing that the roads were built better so that his car would last longer and he could drive smoothly. Constructing roads with a thin layer of crushed stone topped by rubberised asphalt has become a common method used by Chinese development companies in Cambodia.

National Roads 5 and 6, which connect Phnom Penh City to Prek Kdam Bridge in Ponhea Leu in Kandal Province, are now being built using this method.

Mab Ki, an engineer for the OCIC company in Phnom Penh, said that how useful and valuable a road is depends on the construction materials, the design of the road, and the road’s planned life expectancy.

He said that it is also directly dependent on the of the financial investment in the project.

“Before paving a road, the engineers have to drill down to determine the quality of the land before deciding the precise methods of construction needed and how much it is likely to cost,” Ki added.

When asked about the quality of roads that are being constructed by Chinese companies that have not yet been completed, Ki declined to comment.

Hok Chin, general director of OCIC’s Diamond Island project, who studied engineering in Japan, said that to construct a proper road on a specific site, it depends on the strength of the road’s base, and how thickly and solidly the road has been rolled and crushed.

He continued that a concrete road should cost from about $40 to $50 per square metre, and the life expectancy of the road would be between 30 to 40 years. However, an asphalt road would cost less than this if the land has already been tightly packed.

”For [the weather conditions] in Cambodia, we aren’t supposed to have asphalt roads as we have lots of rain and water; hence, a concrete road is better suited for a country with this kind of weather,” Chin said.

A senior official from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, who asked not to be named, said that roads constructed by the Chinese companies come in two different standards.The first sees the life expectancy of the roads as 10 years with one year of warranty after the day a road is fully constructed, whereas the other constitutes providing repair services for roads every decade.

For National Road 8, “the quality is as weak as we’ve seen, but that’s because they hadn’t understood the [weather conditions] here in Cambodia.”

According to him, National Road 8’s rehabilitation was funded with a $71 million loan from a Chinese state-owned bank.

Construction, which began in 2008 and finished in 2012, was undertaken by Shanghai Construction (Group) General Company, a Chinese company, which has been involved in a slew of infrastructure projects in the country.

“The roads constructed by the Chinese companies are organised and managed by the companies themselves. We, the ministry, are in charge of technical inspection and consultation.”

He continued, “now, we are trying to evolve with our national standard,” though he declined to define what that standard is.

A lack of defined standards in road construction may not be the only reason for poor road quality.

Last year, Chinese news agency Xinhua criticised the financial aid and concession loans that are affected by Cambodia’s corruption and widespread misuse of funds, resulting in the Chinese government reforming its judicial keystones to enhance the quality and accuracy of the use of their financial aid.

Chandararoth Kang, an economist and independent consultant, said that regardless of whether Cambodian or Chinese companies construct a road, problems would always arise.

“That’s because if we join the bidding together, they would always talk about unofficial expenses on documenting services. That’s why the quality of the cement, the sand or the stones used in the construction is also a problem.”

He continued that the political strategies of securing the loan are good, but implementation itself rings a different tune as there will be official and unofficial expenses from top to bottom management levels. “What is important is that the government should be more transparent and have more relevant people participate [in the planning].”

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