PHNOM PENH/KANDAL PROVINCE – Two years after Prime Minister Hun Sen broke ground on a Chinese-funded project to widen National Road 6a in order to expand its capacity as a major trade and tourism thoroughfare, life for the tens of thousands of families living along the 50-km stretch of road has become a living nightmare.
Heavy trucks carrying earth and machinery have cut up the sandy red dirt into a billowing fog that reduces visibility on the road to a few meters, nearly obscuring the houses and storefronts along the roadside.
The cloud of blinding, choking dust hangs with few reprieves over the entire journey from Phnom Penh through Kandal to Kompong Cham province.
The project to expand National Road 6a from a 7-meter-wide road to a 26-meter-wide highway began in early 2012, with Chinese company Shanghai Construction Group contracted on the back of $70.25 million in loans from China.
With the 50-km stretch of road scheduled for completion in early 2015, ground was broken in March 2013 on the next, much longer, 248-km stretch from Kompong Cham to Siem Reap.
When it is complete, the route will be the most modern and most important road in Cambodia, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But, in the apocalyptic landscapes beyond Phnom Penh’s city limits, where the terrain of Route 6a at best resembles quarry paths in a mining town and at its worst the surface of Mars during a dust storm, it is difficult to picture the ultra-modern future Mr. Hun Sen evoked.
Many people living along the road feel that their lives are being forgotten at the expense of that promised progress.
“I understand that the road expansion is good for [the] future of the country, and the people, and I am happy to have a big road, but the time it is taking to build it is too long,” said 23-year-old Pich Srey Leakhana, who owns a small wholesale business on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Russei Keo district’s Bak Kheng commune.
“I don’t understand why they have to do the whole road at the same time…without completing any of it,” she said, adding that she is trying to be patient, but that the road literally colors every aspect of her and her children’s lives now.
“I have to live with the dust every day. It’s in our mosquito nets, our pillows, and even our blankets are filled with dust,” she said, as she kicked at the sand carpeting the warehouse floor.
“Your eyes get filled with it. It is very difficult to ride a motorbike, but it is also difficult to breathe with so much dust flying around my own home,” said Ms. Srey Leakhana, adding that she believes her 1-year-old son’s frequent respiratory illnesses are due to breathing the dusty air every day since his birth.
In her small shop set back on the edge of the road’s new margin in Mok Kampoul district’s Russei Chroy commune in Kandal province, 48-year-old Ty Srey, a mother of five, said the only thing she knows about the project is the effect it is having on the community.
“Nobody has come to tell us when the construction will end, not the government and not the company,” she said, referring to one of the numerous companies subcontracted by Shanghai Construction to carry out the project.
“But our children are all ill because of lung problems and skin diseases. It is difficult to breathe and makes them tired, and these symptoms only occurred after the road construction began,” she said, adding that she visits the health center several times per month and spends between 50,000 and 70,000 riel each time (about $12.50 and $17.50).
“I have had to borrow money off the money lender” to pay for medical bills, Ms. Srey said.
The perpetuity of the massive dust cloud is impacting even those businesses that might ordinarily profit from cleaning it.
Vong Sar, a motorbike washer in a village in Kompong Cham province’s Batheay district, where the air is a hazy, orange hue every day, said that business was good along the road until the severity of the dust drove his clients away.
“Before the construction began, I made at least 20,000 to 30,000 riel [about $5 to $7.50] per day, but I get only about 10,000 riel [$2.50] now, because owners don’t want to clean their motorbikes, what is the point? Their motorbike will just get dirty again,” he said.
Nearby, a water-spraying truck dampened the ground a deep-red color to stanch the pluming dust, but it was one of only two such vehicles operating along the 50-km stretch of road.
The Shanghai Construction Group could not be reached for comment, while Cheng Hong Bo, who heads the Chinese Embassy’s political section, referred questions regarding the road project to two other officials within the embassy, neither of whom could be reached.
Workers at the few points along National Road 6a where construction was taking place on Tuesday, said that obstacles had slowed down their work.
“There are a lot of problems,” said one construction worker with Ly Chhuong Construction Company, which is in charge of building 18 km of the new road in Russei Keo district.
“First, the removal of water pipes and electricity cables took a long time to do,” said the worker, who declined to give his name because he did not want to be seen as criticizing his employer.
“Second, I think there are issues relating to negotiation and compensation for people who live here,” he said, referring to compensation payments to people who have lost land to the project.
A senior police official in Kandal province’s Mok Kampoul district, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that many families have moved away from the area entirely—as evidenced by the numerous “for rent” signs on properties along the roadside.
He laid blame squarely on the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
“The ministry just allows the company to do whatever the company wants to do, because the ministry officials rarely come here to visit or to check on their work or the effects of the construction,” he said.
Sam Piseth, director of the Phnom Penh municipal public works and transport department, declined to comment on the social impact of the project.
But, Sok Sokun, director of the Phnom Penh municipal health department, said his staff had visited the area many times and claimed that there was nothing for families living among the billowing clouds of dust to worry about.
“Thanks to the immune system of human beings’ bodies, we have antibodies in our noses that fight viruses, which means there are no problems, nothing will become serious,” he said.
Returning to Phnom Penh through Russei Keo district’s Prek Liep commune, visibility clears but construction is idle, with shop fronts perched perilously over gorges of scooped out earth into which the new road will eventually extend.
For now, rickety wooden steps descend into the rubbish-filled pits to allow the shopkeepers—and customers—to bring and take away goods, which has been the way for the past year-and-a-half.
Shop owners there declined to speak about their hardships, as they said local government authorities had warned they would forfeit compensation if they were discovered to have complained to the media or NGOs about the road project.
District officials in Russei Keo also declined to comment on the impact to their community.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the NGO Housing Rights Task Force, said that his organization had met with many residents along the construction route who confessed they were afraid of losing promised compensation if they complained about the dust and dirt.
“We have a plan to help them, to help them understand their rights, but we can’t do anything until they come to us, and they are too afraid due to intimidation by authorities,” he said.
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