AT least five sand-dredging boats have begun mining operations off the coast of Koh Seh (Horse Island) in Preah Sihanouk province, an official said Tuesday, in an apparent violation of a sand-export ban ordered by Prime Minister Hun Sen on two occasions last year.
One local source, who did not wish to be named, said the boats belonged to a China-based company and began dredging in the area in November. Sboang Sarath, Preah Sihanouk provincial governor, confirmed on Tuesday that a Chinese company had received a licence from the government to dredge and export sand close to Koh Seh.
“It is true [that there is a Chinese company dredging sand], but the company has a legal licence from the government, which was issued by the Ministry of Water Resources,” he said. He added that he could not remember the name of the company, which is operating in cooperation with local firms.
But Mao Hak, director of the Department of Hydrology and River Works at the Ministry of Water Resources, said that only 21 local companies were licenced to dredge in Cambodia’s coastal areas, and that foreign companies were not involved.
“We allow [companies] to export sand dredged from [sea] areas where it can replenish naturally,” said Mao Hak, who is also a member of the Sand Resource Management Committee, an inter-ministerial committee set up in the wake of a sand-export ban ordered by Hun Sen in May and July last year.
Local rights activists said they were not aware of the Chinese company operating off Koh Seh. However, Cheap Sotheary, Adhoc representative in Preah Sihanouk province, said that dredging could seriously impact marine ecology, since the best sand is often buried 10 or 20 metres below the sea bed.
Mom Noron, director of the Stung Hav district Coastal Area Association, said Stung Hav was so far free of dredging operations, but he also raised concerns about their impact, saying they hurt biodiversity and fisheries resources. “We will stage protests if there is sand-dredging in our area,” he said.
Thomas J. Goreau, president of the US-based Global Coral Reef Alliance, said he was not familiar with Cambodia’s coastal ecology, but added that dredging very often has a deleterious effect by stirring up silt and mud that is then carried “enormous distances” by the current.
“This directly smothers marine organisms that can only clean themselves of a limited amount of sediment,” he said by email.
“Eventually they die of exhaustion because the amounts exceed the energy they have to keep themselves clean.”