Thousands of flies swarm around the tiny shack atop the Stung Meanchey municipal dump, where Sam Leakhana lives with her children.
“You get used to them,” the 42-year-old said Monday. “I have adapted to living here.”
Piles of used hypodermic needles, discarded human flesh from Phnom Penh’s hospitals and dead bodies have all been found regularly in Stung Meanchey, the city’s main dump since 1965.
A Japanese study in 2002 found dangerously high levels of dioxin, a toxic chemical that can cause cancer, while another found high levels of arsenic.
But Sam Leakhana is just one of around 500 people—the majority of them children—who dig through the mounds of garbage each day, often with only their bare hands, gathering scrap metal, plastic and other recyclable materials to sell.
They scavenge in the early morning, from when the first refuse trucks start to arrive back from their city collection routes at around 3 am. And more groups go out hunting after dark with flashlights attached to their hats, when pickings can be better.
“On a good day I can make $1.50,” said Sam Leakhana, who has called this 6.8-hectare dump her home since 2002.
The numbers of children, currently 360 aged from 4 years up, who work at Stung Meanchey are growing every year, said Chea Pydem, executive director for the Vulnerable Child-ren Assistance Organization, an NGO which runs a school at the dump.
Sam Leakhana takes little notice of illnesses that affect her and her family.
“Sometimes we get fevers, but we just buy medicine and we are ready to go back to work in a few days,” she said.
A bigger problem, according to a neighbor Phan Pin, 40, is chronic diarrhea, especially in the hot weather.
Nearby, Leng Sokunthea, 14, is busy gathering scrap metal.
She lives on rented land alongside the dump. “I gather metal to earn money for my family so we can keep our house,” she said. Asked if she’d like to live somewhere else she looked away for a moment. “Yes,” she whispered.
Nen Srey, 43, said she and her family of eight moved to Stung Meanchey dump after she be-came seriously ill and had to use all her money for medical treatment.
“Can you find a school I can send my family to?” she asked.
At least 150 families are now living full-time on the dumpsite itself, Chea Pydem said.
“They come from the provinces to find work in Phnom Penh, but they have no qualifications and some end up here,” he said.
The government forcibly evicted 200 families from the dump in late 2003, but there seems to be little will to do anything about those who remain.
Rather than banning them altogether, education and training should be used to discourage people from working under such conditions, Chea Pydem said.
“Education can help these people to find something better than this,” he said.
Though a study by experts from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency in 2002 found Stung Meanchey to be dangerously over capacity, Sao Kun Chhon, director of Phnom Penh Waste Management, which works for City Hall, said a new 32-hectare dump in Dangkao district would not be ready until 2009.
As the capital city grows, the amount of waste produced in Phnom Penh has increased from around 700 tons per day in 2003 to around 1,100 tons per day currently, Sao Kun Chhon said.
When the municipality does shut Stung Meanchey dump, City Hall plans to beautify the area, said Sao Kun Chhon, adding: “It will be a garden.”
But today Stung Meanchey is still a dump and the only home that Sam Leakhana and her family have.
“I have nowhere to go,” Sam Leakhana said.
And when the dump eventually closes, she said: “Maybe we will go and live in the new dump.”