Looking out from his house, held up by three-meter stilts on a peninsula that juts into Boeng Tompun lake, Chan Sokhom can see the sand inching closer to him every day.
Within a few years, the sand will likely reach his doorstep. By then, Mr. Sokhom hopes, he and his neighbors in Boeng Tompun commune will have exchanged their property for suitable compensation packages.
In the meantime, however, the community is dealing with the daily struggles of lives built around a disappearing lake.
“I cannot fish here anymore,” said Mr. Sokhom, who now, like many of his neighbors, depends mostly on harvesting morning glory to support his family.
In 2009, Phnom Penh City Hall granted approval for private companies to develop Boeng Tompun lake into a high-end residential development. Since then, construction crews have been burying the 2,600-hectare lake in sand.
Around 200 families live in the commune on an unnamed road off of Street 371 in Meanchey district that extends south into the lake. The sandy street is lined with makeshift stilt houses and unmarked shops.
Apart from the construction crews working at the northern end of the road, the commune still has the feel of a sleepy village far removed from the congested city streets just up the road.
Families gather on the shores of the lake, leisurely picking morning glory behind their homes; teens congregate around decrepit billiards tables and boats lay idle, ready for rainy season commutes.
But apart from being home to a few hundred people, Boeng Tompun has another, more crucial role to Phnom Penh. It helps treat much of Phnom Penh’s wastewater and is crucial to efforts to control flooding.
Phnom Penh doesn’t have a wastewater treatment center, and relies instead on the natural flow of water through dense vegetation in a series of wetlands to filter the dirty water.
When water is flushed, drained or otherwise disposed of in the city, it travels through a network of pipes, into open canals or an underground drainage system and is finally released into natural wetlands that lie to the south of the city.
The morning glory and water mimosa that are grown in the wetlands are biologically equipped to treat the wastewater by capturing and reutilizing nutrients before releasing the water into the Tonle Bassac river.
According to a 2006 report from the European Commission’s International Scientific Cooperation, this current natural system of treating wastewater in Phnom Penh is “an effective, low cost means of biological treatment of the city’s wastewater.”
But sand is already covering large amounts of the vegetation in Boeng Tompun. The filling in of these wetlands, coupled with a rapidly increasing population, is threatening Phnom Penh’s ability to treat its wastewater.
One solution proposed by City Hall has been to hold on to 500 hectares out of Boeng Tompun’s total area for the purpose of sewage treatment, according to City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche.
But the more the lake is filled, the less effective the natural treatment process will become, and more untreated wastewater will be released into the country’s rivers, according to Togo Uchida, an advisor for a $105 million drainage project by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
“Boeng Tompun has played a very important role as a natural purification reservoir for the city’s wastewater before flowing to the river,” he said in an email.
“Filling in Boeung Tompun may lead to environmental impacts in the rivers caused by untreated wastewater if there is no wastewater treatment plant in the near future.”
Later this year, JICA will begin a feasibility study on a planned Drainage and Sewer Improvement Project, according to Mr. Uchida, who said that “construction of the wastewater treatment plant in Phnom Penh City is highly needed to mitigate the possible negative impacts caused by the wastewater.”
City Hall acknowledges the need for a sewage solution as well, but Mr. Dimanche says that building a treatment plant is not within the city’s budget.
“Building a sewage treatment plant is only possible in rich cities. Cambodia cannot do it,” he said.
Along with playing an important role in wastewater treatment, Boeng Tompun has been crucial in helping to control flooding in the city.
Phnom Penh’s lakes have long served as crucial reservoirs, temporarily storing rainwater before it is drained or pumped out to residents and businesses. But municipality has largely ignored warnings from environmental groups and engineering groups to preserve the lakes.
In the initial stages of JICA’s urban development work in Phnom Penh in 1999, it released a study recommending that Phnom Penh preserve its natural resources and lakes to “ensure effective operation of drainage system and to reduce flood caused by rainwater.”
Yet over the last ten years, many of Phnom Penh’s lakes—Boeng Kak, Boeng Pong Peay, Boeng Snor, Boeng Reak Reay and Boeng Trabek—have faced the same fate as Boeng Tompun, being turned into prized real estate in the name of development.
Because of its size, the loss of Boeng Tompun could pose a particular risk to Phnom Penh’s natural flood control.
While the city is ramping up efforts to build new drainage pipes, in part to mitigate the effects that filling in the lakes will bring, a larger solution is necessary.
The residents of Boeng Tompun commune, meanwhile, are left waiting, knowing that change is coming but unsure of what it will look like.
“We will wait and see if they force us to leave,” said Suon Bunthan, a 29-year-old resident.
The shrinking lake has had a cost for Mr. Bunthan. Like many of his neighbors, he used to eke out a livelihood picking morning glory. When land reclamation buried his family’s morning glory plot, he took up work with one of the construction crews, making $5 a day to bury his village in sand.
“I am one of the few who works for the construction companies,” he said. “But it was easier to make a living before the sand was here.”
Despite his role in the development, Mr. Bunthan isn’t excited about the inevitable move.
As the development advances, investors are starting to pay villagers to move off their land and Mr. Bunthan has already turned down offers.
“Land prices are expensive in Phnom Penh. $30,000 is not enough money,” he said.
But if he doesn’t take a deal now, he could end up empty-handed down the road.
City Hall has “no plans to give land titles to the people of Boeng Tompun because they live on state land,” according to Mr. Dimanche, the municipal spokesman.
Some Boeng Tompun villagers worry that they will become the next Boeng Kak lake community, where more than 3,000 families were subjected to forced evictions and continue to fight for better compensation packages.
“We don’t have a chance against the government but we will protest as best we can for compensation,” said 54-year-old Boeng Tompun villager Lang Un.
Nguon Channy, 47, moved to the lake two decades ago to live a simple life on the lake vegetation, but now sees an uncertain future as the sand draws ever closer.
“I moved here 20 years ago without an education, but I knew I could pick morning glory,” she said. “Now I’m worried that if the sand gets any closer to my house I will have to leave.”
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