kandal province – Earlier this month Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a halt to all dredging of sand for export in Cambodia’s rivers and coastal waters, but environmentalists and riverside dwellers say the continued and widespread dredging of sand for domestic purposes could still cause serious environmental damage.
One example is the sand extraction project being carried out by the Cambodian-based HSC Co Ltd on a section of river where the Tonle Sap river meets the Mekong River in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The company was contracted to fill the capital’s Boeng Kak lake with sand, a mammoth engineering task involving millions of cubic meters of sand sucked from the riverbed and pumped to the other side of the city.
“If dredging projects such as the filling of Boeng Kak lake are still going ahead, it will have a serious impact on the river and on the surrounding mainland,” said Yean Ly, director of the local organization Association of Protection Development for Cambodia Environment.
An HSC Co official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the firm had already pumped about 1.5 million cubic meters of sand – the equivalent of about 600 Olympic swimming pools – from the Mekong River into Boeng Kak lake since it started the extraction operation in early 2008.
However, he said that no official surveys are being carried out by the company to really know the exact amount of sand that is being extracted on a daily basis.
“If this was an American project it would never function like this,” the HSC official explained, adding that the strategic knowledge for the company was “lacking.”
In a statement released in the aftermath of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ban of all dredging of sand for export, the environmental watchdog Global Witness, while welcoming the ban, said that dredging in Cambodia has “potentially devastating impacts” on the environment.
On the small stretch of the Mekong River between Svay Chrum and Barach villages in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district, a short boat ride from the HSC extraction operation a continuous chain of dredging boats trudge along the waterway carrying thousands of tons worth of sand for domestic use to depots situated on the river’s banks.
According to company employees at Huor Heng Cambodia, a sand dredging company currently working in the vicinity of Khsach Kandal, the firm pumps approximately 1,000 cubic meters, or nearly 2,000 tons, of sand from the river every day.
Residents located in the vicinity of Huor Heng and the other dredging operations fear that the land on which they are currently living may not be around for much longer.
Soth Kry, 49, a resident living in Svay Chrum village, said that he has seen 20 meters of his land fall into the Mekong in the last five years, which, incidentally, was around the same time that companies stated to dredge in this area of the river.
“As soon as the dredging started, so did the landslides,” he said.
Phay Mou, 59, another resident living on the same stretch of river said that he abandoned his traditional Khmer house, which was built on stilts, in 2004 for fears of seeing his property slide into the water below.
As did Huy Sokhorn, 52, a fisherman who has lived in Barach Village on the banks of the river for decades.
“Every day it collapses a little bit more,” he said. “In 2008 alone I saw 2 meters fall into the river.”
Gazing out at the crumbling land that sits meters away from were his children play, Yun Yoeun, another resident of Barach village, explained how many villagers in the area are scared, wondering if the dredging activity on their doorstep will send their houses tumbling into the water.
Ministry of Environment Secretary of state Bun Hean said that sand being dredged for export was now illegal because it represented such a large share of the dredging activities in Cambodia. But he maintained that domestic sand dredging, no matter how intensive and large-scale the operation, does not harm the environment.
“Exporting in large quantities can lead to natural disaster, making for unsustainable usage of the sand,” he said. “However, for local dredging the environment is not affected because the sand resources can recover in the next year.”
He added that the government doesn’t have the ability to prevent landslides along the Mekong and other rivers and claimed that riverbank collapse was not linked to dredging activities, but rather natural erosion to the outside bend of the river where the water flows at the highest speed.
However, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, excess dredging can cause “significant environmental and economic challenges.” The agency cites “streambank erosion and wetland loss” as the major problems caused by a shortage of sediment in rivers.
Riverside residents like Mr Yoeun also don’t believe the ministry’s line that dredging doesn’t pose a danger to their homes.
“This is an old house that I built myself. I don’t want to build another one just because of the dredgers,” he said. “If the land collapses it will be very hard to for me to move my house.”