AS the 2009 wet season approaches, Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that authorities in Kandal province should advise riverside residents to remove their homes in anticipation of the seasonal collapse of riverbanks, prompting the opposition to claim the government is shielding licensed sand-dredging operations which are, it says, exacerbating the problem.
"It is better to inform villagers in advance," Hun Sen said Tuesday, during the launch of an avian and human influenza control and preparedness project.
"It is no good to offer them some gifts once their houses have already collapsed. The sadness of people is our concern."
Kandal Governor Chhun Sirun said that the river collapses were not only a concern in Kien Svay, but were also a frequent occurrence in Muk Kampol and Ksach Kandal districts.
"It looks like there is a tradition of riverbank collapse in those areas," he said Tuesday, adding that villagers were well aware of the risks. "We have permanently informed them and they are aware of the danger."
Ly Thuch, second deputy president of the National Committee for Disaster Management, said similarly that people living along the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers were routinely informed by local authorities prior to collapses.
"It does happen in some places but not an a big scale. Local authorities are taking care of this issue," he said.
But although such collapses are an annual occurrence on the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, opposition lawmakers say the premier should instead crack down on sand-dredging operations it claims are worsening the problem.
Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said riverbank collapses had become more severe recently as a result of legal and illegal sand-dredging operations in rivers across the country.
"This is the fault of the government because it grants the licences to companies without considering the consequences," he told the Post.
"The local authorities know, but they can't do anything because powerful people are behind the sand-dredging."
Conservation International could not comment about the specifics of river dredging operations, but said that the removal of sand - even of small amounts by local villagers - could force riverbanks to collapse.
"I have heard before that some people were taking sand from the riverbeds, which causes the isobars in the river to change," he said. "If someone takes sand from one place, sand from another place has to move in to fill the hole."
But Yim Sovann said that it was not enough to issue warnings to villagers while allowing sand-dredging operations to continue, and called on the PM to take more direct responsibility for those displaced by collapses.
"Who benefits? Just the companies and the officials. And who suffers? The people. The PM has to take full responsibility for the people."
In August last year, Veng Sakhon, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Water Resources, told the Post that officials would investigate dozens of potentially illegal sand-dredgers operating on the Mekong.
In the same month, local developer Brothers Investment Group (BIG) was also granted permission to dredge the river as part of a $300 million project to make the waterway navigable by larger vessels. At the time, environmentalists criticised the deal, which they said lacked the proper public consultation due for a project of its size.
But Mao Hak, director of the Department of Hydrology and River Works at the ministry, said that it was also working hard to prevent the unexpected landslides along the edges of rivers.
"We are looking at many ways to reduce riverbank collapses," he said, adding that both known causes - natural erosion and sand dredging - were being monitored.
"We will not allow sand dredging if we find that [operating in] the place will cause damage in the future."