stung meanchey commune, Meanchey district – It’s always smoky and smelly at the Stung Meanchey dump, where garbage rots in the hot sun and fires smolder night and day.
That doesn’t stop dozens of people from searching through the trash, greeting each new truckload with an appraising eye. Some are looking for glass and plastic items to recycle, others for food that isn’t too spoiled to eat.
There are endless possibilities. Nearly 900 tons of garbage are dumped each day in Stung Meanchey commune.
En Sam Oeur’s house abuts the dump’s fence. The air he breathes is full of smoke, dust, smells and chemicals he can only guess at. “Living here is difficult, because each second in each day we breathe only the polluted air from that dump,” he says.
He looks older than his 30 years, and not very healthy. He is plagued by mysterious ailments; at one point, he was unable to walk for two months. The whole neighborhood is racked with coughs.
The air is not the only problem. Last year, Japanese scientists found that as many as 30 wells around the dump are contaminated with arsenic; a two-year study found dioxin in the soil and dangerously high levels of heavy metals in young boys who scavenge the dump.
En Sam Oeur knows the commune council elections are scheduled for Sunday, and he has a message for the candidates: Do something about the dump.
“They have to solve this problem, or people’s health will suffer,” he says. The best solution would be to get rid of the dump entirely; barring that, he says, it must be better managed.
About 33,500 people live in Stung Meanchey commune, which lies in the southwest quadrant of Phnom Penh just outside the outer dike topped by Street 271.
Eighty percent of the voting age population—or about 15,700 residents—have registered to vote. The CPP, Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party are all running candidates to fill the commune’s 11 council seats.
Funcinpec carried Phnom Penh in the last two elections. In 1993, the party claimed 54 percent of the vote compared to 31 percent for the CPP and 3.8 percent for the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party.
The Sam Rainsy Party cut into Funcinpec’s margin in 1998. The numbers that year were: Funcinpec, 33.5 percent; CPP, 29.5 percent; and Sam Rainsy, 27.8 percent.
Seng Sanh, the incumbent Stung Meanchey commune chief, is now running for commune council as a member of the CPP. He knows all about the problems stemming from the dump, but says it is just too big a project for the fledgling commune council to tackle.
The Phnom Penh municipal government will have to deal with the dump, he says. “But we will figure out ways to develop the commune.”
The CPP’s campaign leaflet describes the party’s plan to improve the roads and sewage system, but does not address the dump.
Seng Sanh says he has taken steps to improve sanitation in the area. Three communities near the dump have organized litter-reduction efforts, putting trash bins in front of residents’ houses with the help of World Vision, a Christian non-governmental organization.
Um Bunthea, a Funcinpec candidate, says he has a plan to improve the environment in the area, although it’s not a topic addressed by his party platform.
“I will join the other leaders to better improve the environmental conditions in this area. If possible, the dump should be moved,” he says. “Keeping dumps so near human habitation hurts people.”
An amateur photographer, he has taken affecting photos of children clambering on dump trucks and people eating food from the dump. “It looks terrible,” he said. “I’d like to do something about it if I am elected.”
Two years ago, Um Bunthea saw a child run over by a dump truck, and he cannot forget it. “I want to contact an NGO to get them interested in developing the area and improving the standard of living,” he says.
Dok Sokhon, a Sam Rainsy Party candidate, is making the dump’s environmental impact a campaign issue.
“If elected to lead the commune, I will ask the government to join me to better manage the dump, because its pollution is hurting people,” he says.
People forced to live near the dump should be treated as well as other commune residents, if not better, he says. “Keeping the environment clean, so that people can breathe clean air, is very important,” he says.
While En Sam Oeur says he will vote for the person he thinks will do the best job cleaning up the dump, some of those most affected by conditions will not be participating in the election.
Sen Than, a 38-year-old demobilized soldier, doesn’t even live in the area. He and his wife come to the dump from Takeo province to find bottles they can recycle into kerosene lamps.
Others have not bothered to register to vote. All they care about, they say, is scavenging what they need and getting away from the dump.