Sitting outside his home next to the stagnant black waters of Boeng Trabek, Nhim Sam Oeun, a mint farmer, said he has been trying to get permission to fill in a small part of the 26-hectare lake since 1993.
Filling in just small parts of the lake, in Chamkar Mon district, would allow the 53-year-old father of five, and 153 other poor families living around the pungent body of water, to better provide for themselves by using the resulting land, Nhim Sam Oeun said.
“Tycoons can fill lakes but the poor can’t,” Nhim Sam Oeun said. “We are poor.”
As reports emerge of top government officials and private firms feverishly filling in Phnom Penh’s largest lakes—to create land potentially worth tens of millions of dollars—the residents around Boeng Trabek said their requests to fill in a small part of a much smaller lake has been shunned by Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema.
In a letter dated April 20, 2004, and signed by Kep Chuktema, the governor informed the families that filling the lake would be illegal, and besides, it could cause the city to flood as lakes provide drainage for the capital.
Filling in the lake “would affect the city people and damage the city’s infrastructure,” Kep Chuktema warned.
Independent observers have voiced similar concerns about the current demise of Boeng Pong Peay and Boeng Kbal Damrei—which are both considerably bigger than Boeng Trabek—and have questioned the legality of selling land created by filling in lakes to private investors.
On Wednesday, Eric Huybrechts, a French government urban planning specialist and adviser to Kep Chuktema, said that Boeng Bayab in Russei Keo district, which until recently was about 60-80 hectares in size, has been almost completely filled in over the last year.
He did not know who was filling the lake, but added: “It was more or less the choice of the Municipality.”
Funcinpec lawmaker Princess Norodom Vacheara warned Wednesday that filling the lakes will likely flood the city.
“We never had a real irrigation system…when it rains, it goes to the lakes,” she said, adding that she will write to Prime Minister Hun Sen, requesting him to ask Kep Chuktema to explain the situation regarding Phnom Penh’s lakes. Kep Chuktema could not be contacted for comment Wednesday.
Hour Seak Lorn, 42, a mother of nine living by Boeng Trabek, said that if she were allowed to fill in a small part of the lake, she would share it with her children and grandson.
“We need equality in our society,” Nhim Sam Oeun said. “People with power can fill in a lake. [Ordinary] people want to do it but they can’t,” he added.