At least three private companies in Phnom Penh will face lawsuits for digging too deep to collect earth and for filling in natural waterways, a practice deemed damaging to the city’s drainage system, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said Sunday.
Though declining to name the companies, Kep Chuktema said that the municipality is preparing a court complaint against the firms, which have dug deeper than the maximum 7-meter depth allowed and which have filled in lakes and canals.
“We’ve warned them many times and also fined them many times…but they’ve never complied with our directives,” he said.
In Phnom Penh, more than 10 companies collect such soil, which is mostly used to raise the level of low-lying properties but has increasingly been used to fill in public waterways that are then claimed as private property.
Many of the firms are owned by powerful officials, including police and military, which makes it difficult for municipal officials to regulate their activities, Kep Chuktema said.
On March 31, the city ordered a halt to all land-filling, stating in a directive that some developers had illegally filled in “lakes and canals, which serve as a water basin and drainage systems, and could cause serious flooding in the future.”
However, reports emerged as far back as January 2005 that government officials and private firms were feverishly filling in Phnom Penh’s largest natural lakes in order to create land potentially worth tens of millions of dollars.
Kep Chuktema said there was nothing the municipality could do about canals and lakes that have already been filled.
“Let’s forget it. The municipality has no ability to force anyone to take the soil out of the canals or the lakes. [Now we] pay attention to protect any lake and canal that has not yet been filled,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said last week that any moves taken now would do little to address the damage already done to the capital.
“The landfills started in the time of the former Governor Chea Sophara, and the worst period was when Kep Chuktema took power. We found many lakes around the city were filled and there was no benefit to the state whatsoever,” Son Chhay said.
Daun Penh district resident Ros Seanghak, 47, said that the Boeng Bayab lake in Phnom Penh Thmei commune has been almost completely filled in with soil from a site nearby the former lake.
The site from where the soil was taken is now pockmarked with pits some 20 to 30 meters deep.
“I have forbidden my children to play around that area for fear they will fall into the holes during the rainy season because those companies haven’t put a fence around it,” Ros Seanghak said.
Phnom Penh Thmei commune Chief Chum Saray said that the Boeng Bayab lake was once around 200 hectares in size, but that the majority of it has been filled and sold. All that remains is around 38 hectares, he said.
Several land developers said their companies do not dig near residential areas, and that it was the lake filling operations by senior officials that had taken the highest toll on the city’s drainage.
“My company normally buys rice fields located far from residential homes, so it could not damage the city’s drainage systems,” said Khutdy Vathana, director of Vathana Group, which has been collecting soil for over 10 years and is required to apply for a license every three months.
Khat Darasy, police chief of Russei Keo district’s Tuol Sangke commune, said that few companies were digging deeper than the legal depth in his area. However, he said, “Some holes…have become popular places to commit suicide because they are filled with water.”