Kob Srov Lake has been sold and is up for sale again. All along the Kob Srov dike, a several-kilometer-long earth embankment and roadway that has protected northern Phnom Penh from flooding for decades, speculators have staked their claims to the land beneath the water.
The concrete walls of the dike, which was rebuilt with a $4.7 million Asian Development Bank loan in 2002, have been spray-painted with the graffiti of rapacious speculators ready to sell what they claim are their submerged properties.
“Hing Srei Vun, 20 [meters],” one lake property seller has sprayed in red paint, along with her mobile telephone number. Other graffiti-style advertisements offer plots 40, 50 and 100 meters in width along the dike wall, and all have painted out their mobile numbers for customers.
“Oh, they are the powerful men who have star ranks [in the military and police] and oknha titles,” said Phoeun Sam Ath, 46, a resident of Kob Srov commune’s Trapaing Raing village.
“The poor are not able to own this land but the rich and powerful do,” he said, gesturing toward the demarcation posts in the lake and the graffiti proclaiming “Land for sale” and “This land has been bought.”
Dangkao district governor Krouch Phan said that of the approximately 600 hectares of land that Kob Srov Lake covers in his district alone, almost all has been claimed by government officials and businessmen in the last few months.
But the majority of the lake is under the authority of Ponhea Leu district officials in neighboring Kandal province, and most of that land officials were unsure of the exact size on Tuesday has also likely been claimed, said Dangkao district’s Kork Roka commune police chief Suon Sam Oeun.
Authorities, Suon Sam Oeun said, are not able to stop the lake’s seizure by the rich and the elite, who have been claiming ownership after paying local villagers in his commune for the right to buy the lake.
Ponhea Leu district Governor Tep Sothy agreed that most of the potential land had been claimed in the past few months. He said he had no idea of the size of the lake or the number of its new owners.
Krouch Phan said he, too, was unaware of the number of land claimants.
“Most parts of this lake belong to excellencies and oknhas. They installed their concrete posts before the Khmer New Year. I cannot stop them,” Huot Heang, chief of Kob Srov’s Touch village, said on Monday.
But over several years, at least four private companies have been obtaining plots, between 25 and 250 hectares, by buying the lake land from villagers, Huot Heang said.
“It is really complicated,” he added.
One lake land owner, contacted at the telephone number he had sprayed on the dike wall, said he had legally purchased 25 hectares of the lake from Kob Srov villagers in different stages, beginning in 2001.
Commenting on a decree by Phnom Penh Municipality that all the lake land would be taken back by the state, the lake land owner added: “This order came too late. This lake is gone already.”
Another speculator warned Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema to keep his hands off her newly purchased property.
“If [Kep Chuktema] confiscates my land I will protest against him. I spent a lot of money to buy this land,” said the woman, who identified herself as Sa’em Chakriya.
Kep Chuktema on May 3 issued an order that ownership claims to Kob Srov Lake be disregarded, and warned that the city faced the danger of flooding if the flood area was encroached upon.
“Kob Srov Lake is public property that stores flood water from the river and rain, and prevents flooding in the northern and northwestern parts of Phnom Penh,” the order states.
On Monday, Kep Chuktema said he had ordered an investigation and that once the results were known, he would reclaim the land.
“We cannot allow them put demarcation posts to own a lake. It is so anarchic,” he said.
Reports began to emerge in early 2005 that government officials and business people were feverishly filling in Phnom Penh’s lakes to create land potentially worth tens of millions of dollars.
Pong Peay lake, one of the city’s largest, had been partly filled in by private firms that had official government permission to do so.
A Russei Keo district official said at the time that RCAF Commander-in-Chief Ke Kim Yan had acquired 200 hectares of land that was once a lake in his district.
Hoisting two buckets of water he had fetched from the lake, Phoeun Sam Ath said that the push to own the lake had been backed by greedy local officials, including village and commune chiefs.
“They own the water and they are selling the water of the lake,” Phoeun Sam Ath said. “How will I live here if the whole lake disappears?”