KHSACH KANDAL DISTRICT, Kandal province – A 39-year-old woman and two young children are missing and presumed dead after their home in Preah Prasap commune collapsed into the Mekong River on Tuesday night, a tragedy villagers are blaming on illegal sand dredging of the riverbed.
Four other people were injured as a 15-by-50-meter section of riverbank, located just behind a brick factory where a number of local families work, crumbled from under them. The collapse caused three adjoining wooden houses to fall apart as the families slept and smash into the river, said commune police chief Pov Phorn.
“We are still searching for the dead bodies but do not have the equipment, so we have hired five Vietnamese diving experts to find them,” he said. As of last night, the bodies had yet to be recovered.
Sao Soth lost his 39-year-old wife, Sam Ol, his 3-year-old son and his 18-month-old nephew when his home collapsed.
“When I woke up, I was in the water,” said the factory worker, 39.
“I heard my 12–year-old daughter screaming for help, so I pushed toward her to hold her up and my 7-year-old daughter grabbed onto her legs until I got them to the riverbank and up the hill,” said Mr. Soth as he sat on his neighbors’ porch about 50 meters from where his house once stood.
“I went back to try and help my wife and baby boy but it was so dark that I couldn’t find them. Now I am in a nightmare because I have lost them.”
Mr. Soth’s sister, 18-year-old Phoeun Pov, lived in the room next door. She knows that her 18-month-old son could not have survived, though his body has not yet been found.
“I am just in shock,” she said. “When I fell into the water, I managed to grab my son but almost immediately I was struck by a piece of falling wood and he disappeared from my arms,” she said.
Toem Kimsroeun, 32, who also lived in the wooden house and managed to jump onto the muddy slope as her home collapsed, said that sand dredging on the river must be the cause of the disaster.
“Three or four months ago, we saw boats pumping sand out in the middle of the river and afterward, land began to appear either side of the riverbank,” she said.
The Phnom Penh municipal government ordered a moratorium on sand dredging around the city in August. In December, five barges were impounded for flouting the ban on the same stretch of river.
Khieu Soknath, deputy governor of Khsach Kandal, disputed villagers’ claims Wednesday that sand dredging had caused the riverbank to collapse.
“There is no sand dredging here. The riverbank collapsed due to natural erosion caused by the river current against the land,” he said.
The former owner of the brick factory, Leap Chheng Srouy, said it was possible that the collapse was a natural disaster but he said workers had lived for many years along the river’s edge without incident and that heavy sand dredging over the past five years was the likely cause of the collapse.
This sentiment was shared by monks at nearby Prasap Pagoda.
“When they dredge the river, the land will fall into the cavity in the bottom, which has caused the riverbank to collapse,” said one of the monks, Chan Phoeun.