A sorry sight pierces the pristine waters of the Kampong Bay estuary, in Kampot province: the rusty hull of a sand-dredging barge that has capsized and been abandoned in the middle of the waterway.
The rusting hulk is one of three upside-down, partly submerged barges that Kampot residents will not be adding to the area’s long list of tourist attractions.
The barges that remain upright are busy plundering the estuary of sand in yet another dredging operation being recklessly conducted on one of Cambodia’s picturesque waterways.
Now, yet another segment of the country’s population find themselves dismayed as the fish stocks they rely on dwindle, seafood prices rise and tourists gaze uncomfortably at the giant eyesores spoiling the serenity.
Ham Math, 60, from Kampong Kreng commune’s Mak Brang fishing village, says most people in his community wouldn’t dare raise their concerns about the dredging because the company is too politically connected.
“Our villagers are afraid of Yuon [a derogatory term for Vietnamese people] and do not dare to blame them. Their boss has power,” he says.
Since dredging began, he says, fishing yields have decreased by about 50 per cent, but this is not the only aspect of dredging that worries villagers.
Every day, 47-year-old boatwoman Loeng Vanna, from Andong Chimoeun village, also in Kampong Kreng commune, ferries children across the Kampong Bay estuary to school.
Directly in front of her village, no more than 20 metres from the bank, a giant crane, whooshing and gushing, heaves loads of sand onto a barge more than 30 metres long.
“Sometimes, they dredge at 3 or 4am. It borders us. We cannot sleep. I really feel nervous and panic when rowing my boat to transport my customers. The river gets deeper because of the sand dredging. If my boat sinks, we will drown,” Loeng Vanna says.
The Post counts seven barges, about 760 cubic metres in size, which are each loaded for about an hour before setting off towards sand-collection sites just south of Kampot town.
They dump their loads in four separate piles indiscreetly dotted on the river bank, one in view of the central waterfront nightlife strip, before heading back to refill.
Next to one pile of sand, a small military patrol boat named Horse Island, with the registration number 1104, is moored. In front of another pile sits a smaller police patrol boat, Dragon 1.
A large ocean-going cargo ship loaded with sand that is moored closer to the mouth of the river bears the Vietnamese name Phu An.
Phech Samon, who opened an eponymous guesthouse on the estuary about three months ago, says he’s tired of seeing the government sell natural resources that should belong to the Cambodian people to local and foreign private investors.
“I feel very sorry about how the government decided to let them do all this. It’s really disgusting; it really must be from corruption,” he says.
“The government’s job is to protect the things that belong to the Cambodian population. It’s not their decision to let any investor come and ruin anything by themselves.” Phech Samon says he is also less than thrilled about the capsized dredging barges that have been abandoned in the river his guests come to enjoy.
“The river is quite clean, and if you see something falling over, it doesn’t look good for this kind of peaceful, beautiful river,” he says.
Like many of the residents in Kampot whose livelihoods are threatened by what they say is completely unregulated mining of the river’s resources, he has been given no information about who the company is owned by or what it is licensed to do.
Kampot provincial governor Khoy Khun Hour could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Chan Yutha, Cabinet Chief at the Ministry of Water Resource and Meteorology, says companies have been granted licences to dredge in Kampot, but only in the ocean and at the mouth of the river.
He says he cannot remember the names of the licensed companies and declines to comment on whether any environmental impact assessments have been conducted for the project.
In January, 2010, the government suspended the licences of three companies, Thaknin Tharith Import Export Co, the Keo Tha Company and the Theo Vorin Company, that were dredging in Kampot in apparent defiance of a ban announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier that year.
Kampot province Sam Rainsy Party representative Mu Sochua says the boats are largely staffed by Vietnamese nationals, who she suspects are working for one of these companies.
“This sand, which is a national resource of Cambodia, of Kampot, is sold to a Vietnamese company.
“Where does the money go to? It’s an issue of transparency that gets way down to corruption.
“Does the money go into the national budget or the budget of the province?”
Mu Sochua is also worried about the impact the dredging will have on Kampot’s most famous produce, dur-ians, many of which are planted upstream on the banks of the Kampong Bay estuary.
Eav Sou, a 55-year-old resident from the riverside village of Andong Chimoeun village, says that when the community voices concern that river banks already eroded by seasonal flooding could further collapse from dredging, officials ignore them.
“The owners of durian fields are worried that one day some parts of their durian fields will collapse,” Eav Sou says.
“Our authorities have claimed that the sand-dredging operation helps to restore the river, but they need only the sand; they release the mud back into the river.”
Mu Sochua says villagers such as Eav Sou are not inherently anti-dredging but just want it done in a responsible way where the boats are monitored, revenues are declared and villages are consulted.
“They live off just one thing – the river – and they take the boat all the way to sea. Every year, this situation comes up. Every year I write to the Prime Minister. I write to the governor, who has not spoken one word to me,” she says.
Until those concerns are answered, she says, residents along the Kampong Bay estuary are stuck with a company whose environmental sensitivity is best illustrated by the capsized barges that lie abandoned in Kampong Bay estuary.