A sand dredging operation of “unprecedented scale” on the Tatai river, in Koh Kong province, had decimated fish stocks, ruined eco-tourism projects and released foul-smelling gases into the air since it began in May, business owners said yesterday.
Ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat’s company, LYP Group, had been granted sole rights to dredge sand in the area for export after applying for a licence late last year, Mao Hak, director of river works at the Ministry of Water Resources, said.
Janet Newman, owner of the Rainbow Lodge resort on the Tatai river, said yesterday the dredging operation had begun on May 17 and was destroying her business.
Four cranes were now pumping sand 15 metres from the resort, sometimes for 24 hours at a time, she said.
“I took some customers out on the water for a sunset the other day. It was like a city, it was like Kevin Costner’s Water World,” Newman said, adding that in one day she had seen a total of 21 ships and barges, seven cranes and a massive bucket conveyer belt in a one-kilometre stretch of river.
The dredging of “unprecedented scale” had also caused foul-smelling gases to rise, which she feared could have a devastating impact on the area’s rich mangrove ecosystems.
Thomas Stien, the owner of Neptune Bungalows, said yesterday he had not received a single guest since mid-April because of the dredging.
“All the way up from the Koh Kong river up to the Tatai river, there are maybe 150 boats,” he said, adding that one enormous vessel was about a kilometre long.
On June 6, 114 villagers from the Tatai area submitted a petition to provincial officials and relevant ministries complaining that dredging had almost wiped out river life, Tep Malar, head of the eco-tourism community based in Anlong Vak village, in Tatai Krom commune, said.
He added yesterday that members of his community were angry because the dredging had affected their businesses and their basic livelihood.
“We found that crab and fish catches were drastically declining as polluted water from the sand-dragging operation was close to our village,” he said.
“Both local and foreign tourists were scared of boats crashing while there were so many vessels to transport sand along the river.”
Officials said yesterday the government would monitor the site.
“Only LYP Group has been allowed to do sand dragging at Tatai for export,” Mao Hak said.
“The government’s sand management committee will monitor the company once or twice a year and if we find that the operation is not [implemented] in the proper technical way, we will ask the company to stop.”
It was unclear yesterday whether the licence violated an export ban placed on dredged sand by Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2009 “in order to protect the stability of the natural environments of rivers and marine areas”.
The premier said at the time a total ban on marine dredging would be enforced, except where sand gathered and replenished itself naturally or where build-up was obstructing waterways. Dredging to serve local sand demand would also be allowed.
Ly Yong Phat said yesterday LYP Group had been exporting sand to Singapore on and off for the past year, but had temporarily suspended its export operations because of lack of demand.
“Our main activity that we received the licence from the government for is to drain sand out of the river in order to avoid floods,” he said.
George Boden, a London-based campaigner for Global Witness, said yesterday it was obvious that the Cambodian government gave scant regard to environmental and social concerns when awarding dredging licences.
“Obviously, when there is no information about how and when these rights are given out and they are given out to senior CPP senators, there are quest-ions about how it is they came to own those rights and the process by which they got them,” Boden said.
“There are a number of important species in the area, and previously dredging has been taking place inside protected areas.”
Newman, however, said that the ministries of fisheries, tourism and water resources had shared her concerns.