The Siem Reap River, choked with plastic rubbish, and with squatters' houses perched on its bank, is a sore sight for tourist eyes.
T he families whose huts line the banks of the Siem Reap river will be removed from the town center by Siem Reap provincial authorities in 2008 because they are polluting the water, a senior provincial official told the Post.
Ung Oeun, deputy governor of Siem Reap, said the provincial authority planned to evict more than 600 families living along the Siem Reap River. The families will be resettled in two places along the Angkor Thom, Banteay Srey, and Prasat Bakong district borders, more than 10km north of Siem Reap town.
"We have to move them soon as they are polluting the water," Oeun said, "It is a shame for us to let tourists see polluted water."
The riverside community members are squatting on the land and have not had land titles issued to them by local authorities, Oeun said. Provincial authorities had long planned the eviction, resettlement, and a subsequent tidy-up of the riverbank, but despite their having prepared 2,000 hectares of land to be distributed as compensation plots, the authorities lack the necessary budget to actually go through with the project, he said.
"We need to find the budget to progress," Oeun said. "Rehabilitating the river bank and installing adequate infrastructure at the resettlement sites will cost more than $3 million."
Um Chantha, 55, a banana seller, who has lived next to the river for more than a decade in Slar Kram commune, said she could recognize that the houses alongside the river polluted the water. She is delighted the authorities intend to improve the condition of Siem Reap's river but urged that they consider the livelihoods of those they are going to evict.
"I am happy to move any time, but they have to evict the whole river-side community together - not just evict the poor and keep the rich," Chantha said, "Before they evict people the authorities must provide adequate compensation and identify a proper place to resettle us so we can still earn a living."
Chantha said that the river began became increasingly polluted from 1993 when people from various places around the country settled in Siem Reap during the UNTAC era.
Another villager in Sala Kamreuk commune, Sao Phansy, 57, denied that the people living along the river polluted it. She said the pollution was caused by sewage from large hotels flowing directly into the water and large residences in the town throwing their household rubbish in to the river.
"The relocation site is far from the town and people cannot earn a living there," Phansy said, "I do not want to move to the place where I used to live during the Pol Pot time again."
Phansy said she was sceptical about how the authorities could develop and improve the riverside area while they continued to allow large hotels to pollute the river directly. Moreover, she said, the majority of Siem Reap's citizens will continue to throw their household waste into the river.
The river flows from the Koulen mountain down to the Tonle Sap lake. In Siem Reap town the river has become increasingly polluted as people living on its banks throw their household waste directly into its waters and have built toilets behind their thatch cottages that drop raw human sewage into the river. Residents say that several years ago it was possible to sit on the riverbank and swim in the river or cook with its water. Now, this would be reckless.
Chev Phal, director of the Siem Reap Environment Department, said his department had been cooperating with local authorities to hold public education campaigns to encourage people in riverside communities not to throw rubbish into the water or build toilets on the river. These campaigns have been moderately successful, he said.
"We want to develop Siem Reap to become a environmentally friendly 'green' city," Phal said.
Ke Sovannroth, Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian for Siem Reap, said authorities had allowed the riverside community to settle on the land and according the land law, they would have the right to possess that land after having lived on it for five years.
"I support the idea of development being oriented to improving the overall beauty of the city, but not if it adversely affects people's standards of living," Sovannroth said, "I worry that the authorities will move the people away without providing proper compensation."
Oeun said the provincial authority will build infrastructure at the site where the people will be evicted, including roads, a school and a market.
"They cannot live in anarchy along the river for ever," Oeun said, "We need to develop the river and the city to attract tourists."
Nou Puthyk, Siem Reap coordinator for local human rights NGO Licadho, said the district authorities had notified people along the river about the planned eviction and were counting the number of villagers to be resettled. Authorities wanted to learn about the needs of those people and provide adequate aid before evicting them to the designated resettlement area.
"It is better to inform residences about the eviction plan so they have enough time to prepare themselves," Puthyk said, "Experience has shown that evicted people always end up living in a miserable situation at the relocation site."