Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sand from the Mekong are being sucked from the banks and shipped to Singapore, which some say could be destructive
A boat pushes a barge-load of sand up the Tonle Bassac river in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
The Ministry of Water Resources is set to investigate and possibly ban dozens of illegal sand-pumping companies on the Mekong River, ministry officials told the Post Tuesday.
"We will take measures against companies that illegally pump sand along the Mekong," said Secretary of State Veng Sakhon.
Singapore has been buying massive amounts of sand to expand its land, but has had trouble sourcing the material.
Indonesia and the Philippines are among the countries that have banned most sand sales because of its destructive impact on riverbeds and shorelines.
Cambodia is one of the only countries that still allows sand dredging in protected areas.
Veng Sakhon said Minister of Water Resources Lim Kean Hor has already reported to Prime Minister Hun Sen about illegal sand-pumping companies, especially boats pumping sand along the river in Russey Keo district's Kien Klang commune.
"Hun Sen agreed with the minister on the need for action," Veng Sakhon said. "He will make a decision this weekend," he said.
He added that some mobile pumping companies plying the rivers claim to be doing business in the name of high-ranking government officials.
"Some businesses claim that they know this or that official, but we don't believe them," Veng Sakhon said.
"We need an investigation." He added that other companies use falsified licences to stay in operation.
Illegal sand pumping contributes to bank erosion along the Mekong and could seriously affect the lives of villagers near the river, Veng Sakhon said.
"I have received several complaints from villagers and officials about illegal sand pumping," he said.
But the ministry has also encouraged legal businesses to export sand to Vietnam and Singapore.
20 licensed companies
Pov Chantha, director general for Sand Resource Co Ltd, said his company exported a total of 200,000 square metres of sand to Singapore via Vietnam in the first half of 2008.
Sand Resource, established earlier this year, is one of at least 20 licensed companies shipping sand to Singapore, Pov Chantha said, adding that due to its high quality, Cambodia's mountain and river sand sells for as much as US$6 per square metre in Vietnamese ports.
Our sand is much better quality
than sand available
"Cambodia exports directly from Phnom Penh to Singapore, and we pay import and export taxes," said Pov Chantha.
"The Mekong has never been dredged, and if we did not pump sand it would become too shallow in the future."
He said that, as a legal business, Sand Resource has paid $200,000 to Cambodia's customs department and the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy for its exports and the same amount to the Vietnam Tax Department at the Vietnamese port.
Cambodia exports sand to Singapore principally for use in beaches, construction and road building.
"We can export as much as the market needs," Pov Chantha said. "Our sand is much better in quality than sand available in Vietnam."
Pov Chantha questioned what he said is excessive taxation by the government, saying that the Mekong River was as much as 20 metres deep during the 1960s but is now only about eight metres.
"I wonder why the government is even taxing us at all because we are helping to make the river deeper," he said.
"I have heard that the ministry once sought $100 million in financing to pump out silt from the river."
He also questioned the potential impact that pumping sand could have on the river banks.
"I don't think riverbanks along the Mekong and Tonle Bassac will collapse because of sand-pumping companies, but rather because of the flow of water during the rainy season," he said.
Ith Praing, secretary of state at the ministry, said sand is a national mineral and should be properly controlled by a joint committee with the Ministry of Water Resources.
Dang Chamroeun, first chief of Chruoy Changvar commune, said there are a few hundred boats dredging sand from the river each day along the banks of the peninsula, especially along National Road 6A.
"Local residents have filed complaints to related ministries for authorities to take action but have received no answer," Dang Chamroeun said.
He said commune authorities used to catch the boats, but they were released after four or five days and continued dredging in the same place. "The people feel disappointed with that," he said.
Residents fear that their homes will eventually fall into the river if the dredging continues and the river gets deeper, he said.
He added that one house in Deum Koe village has already been destroyed by eroding banks and many others have been abandoned.
"I don't understand the technical studies about the effects of dredging or the licences companies hold to do business," Dang Chamroeun said.
He said there were no problems in the area before the dredging started but that villagers in Prek Pra commune along the Bassac River now fear that dredging will result in eroding riverbanks.
Most disturbing to conservationists is the presence of sand dredging in protected areas where companies are apparently operating without permission from the Ministry of Environment," he said.
"If you take too much sand from a river, it affects the shore and the forests nearby ... some of the areas the companies are operating are very sensitive," said Bunra Seng, the country director of Conservation International (CI).
He said CI is monitoring sand dredging in the Central Cardamom protected forest.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY GEORGE MCLEOD