Boats plied the Tonle Bassac river in Kandal province Wednesday pulling up tons of sand from the river bottom in Takhmau district, despite the minister of Industry, Mines and Energy saying such operations are not legal in the area.
The dredging continued in broad daylight days after an SRP lawmaker made a formal complaint through the National Assembly to halt such illegal operations in Takhmau as well as Kien Svay and Sa’ang districts. Reporters witnessed five dredging boats either filled with sand or empting their earthen payloads in piles upon the shore.
On Tuesday, Minister of Industry Suy Sem said that dredging in those three districts was illegal as no company is licensed to do so.
Suy Sem said Wednesday that villagers need to complain to local authorities to help crack down on mobile dredging in the area.
Mobile dredging is the practice of moving from area to area to dig sand as opposed to staying in a designated area.
“Mobile dredging is illegal because the Ministry of Water Resources Management sets up the area for [the dredging] business,” Suy Sem said, adding that a company is required to operate only within the confines of the area granted by the state.
Despite calling for villagers to report mobile dredging to local authorities, Suy Sem said that “all those dredging illegally are thieves.”
Sa’ang District Governor Khim Chankiri said Wednesday that some action had been taken to stop illegal dredging in his district, but declined to explain how.
“If the authority does not take any action, the bank [erosion] will be much more serious,” he said.
Khem Laky, SRP lawmaker for Kandal province, had raised the issue of dredging in Kandal in a Sunday letter to National Assembly President Heng Samrin that expressed concern for villagers Takhmau, Kien Svay and Sa’ang because their land and homes are sliding into the river after dredging supposedly destabilized riverbanks.
Several Sa’ang district villagers said Wednesday that they started to complain to the authorities months ago about the dredging, but have so far seen only visits by district police who merely assess the situation.
In Samath, a villager in Svay Ralum commune, watched 3 meters of land behind his house fall into the Tonle Bassac in December, just a month after dredging began near his home. The 45-year-old said there have been no other collapses since he moved there in 1993.
Heng Sokphai, 29, of Phoum Pram village witnessed the collapse of his older sister’s home last month. It happened at 11 pm and, he said, there was no one inside as cracks and a tilt to the home occurred days before the riverbank collapsed.
The family has received no compensation for the loss of the $3,000 home, Heng Sokphai said.
He said the dredging vessels stopped frequenting the area after the collapse of his sister’s home. “The dredging used to happen right next to our home and often they came at midnight,” Heng Sokphai said.
Lim Kean Hor, minister of Water Resources and chairman of the National Sand Committee, said most of the illegal dredging is done at night. “I had cracked down once before the national election in that area,” he said.
It is always illegal to dredge along the riverbank, Lim Kean Hor said, but dredging can be allowed if it is in the middle of the river in a designated area.
Suy Sem said that there are no designated dredging areas along the Bassac from Takhmau to Phnom Penh.
However, several officials could not say if there are set areas in Kien Svay or Sa’ang for dredging as they did not have technical documents at the time to answer the question.
Lim Kean Hor said he will send a special working group out to the area to investigate the dredging.