City Hall on Wednesday blamed climate change for fish deaths in the Tonle Sap river that began earlier this week and drove hundreds of houseboat owners to relocate, contradicting residents’ accounts of black sewage discharge preceding the die-off.
“It’s not involved with the sewage system. It’s caused by climate change making it hot,” said City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey, who based the conclusion on an internal “group of experts” that he declined to identify.
Reporters on Tuesday witnessed a canal of black sewage water about 5 meters wide flowing through a village in Svay Pak commune and into the river, about 2 km north of where residents reported fish dying on Sunday.
Untreated sewage flushing into the river is common in the area, according to Piotr Sasin, country director of NGO People in Need who works with several of Phnom Penh’s riverside communities facing similar sewage problems.
“There is no sewage system in many of those communities,” he said in an email. “People have toilets with septic tanks or their sewage goes to canals…and via them to Tonle Sap river.”
Earlier this week, hundreds of floating houses that double as fish farms floated downriver to central Phnom Penh seeking cleaner waters after the sewage caused their fish to die, residents of the Kilometer 7 area said.
Phnom Penh’s sewage system is regularly overwhelmed. Most of the city’s sewage is transported to and processed in natural lakes, such as Boeng Trabek, but this process has been hampered in recent years both by development on the lakes and increased pressure on the aging sewage system.
City Hall has acknowledged the problem in the past, partnering with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to create a 20-year master plan for sewage management.
The plan was finalized in March, according to media reports. Commenting on the plan at the time, Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap admitted Phnom Penh had “a need for a proper sewage treatment plant,” but said funding sources needed to be secured and further studies conducted.
JICA did not respond to a request for the plan on Wednesday, and Mr. Measpheakdey said he did not have the plan’s details.