Rights groups fear new wave of homeless to hit Phnom Penh streets
Collecting cartloads of cans, cardboard, plastic and glass for recycling can earn scavengers at Stung Meanchey rubbish dump more money than many rural households can make farming, but it is a livelihood set to end when the dump closes next year in favor of a larger, closed-off site near the Choeung Ek killing fields.
Rising in the pre-dawn darkness, Mean Ny is quickly absorbed into the anonymous throng of scavengers in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey dump, a vast wasteland of sodden rotten trash that grows each day as the capital disgorges hundreds of tons of refuse.
Only a few short kilometers distant, but a world away from the city-center’s wide boulevards, dotted with modernist shopping malls or the metal and concrete skeletons of future skyscrapers, the capital’s poorest pick out a grim living, collecting plastic or aluminum – anything that can be sold for a few cents.
“I have to get up at three or four every morning in order to get things for recycling, like plastic, rubber and paper, before the others,” the 50-year-old told the Post, standing knee-deep in a pile of trash.
This existence, however miserable, still carries with it the familiar rhythms that Mean Ny has grown used to during the past 16 years.
About 400 families will be affected by the closure of Stung Meanchey, according to local NGOs’ estimates.
But upheaval is not far away, as authorities plan to start closing the Stung Meanchey tip next year, a move which threatens to uproot thousands of scavengers and create a wave of newly homeless in Phnom Penh’s streets, advocacy groups warn.
“There are more than 1,700 children and about 400 families who will face unemployment and loss of income,” said Sry Chanratha, of Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), a French NGO set up in 1995 that provides education to children at Stung Meanchey.
“We don’t have the ability to help them yet,” said Chanratha, who directs PSE’s social and external school program.
“But we are trying to find funding from other NGOs in order to assist them to get real jobs and houses.”
Municipal authorities say the Stung Meanchey tip, which opened in 1962 as Phnom Penh’s main dump site, is now a 17-acre (6.9-hectare) blight on the rapidly-expanding capital and needs to be closed.
Stinging clouds of dry-season dust and smoke from smoldering trash heaps give way to deep, stinking mud in the monsoon, as the stench of fumes leaking from deep inside the decades of compacted refuse smother nearby neighborhoods.
According to our plan, we will not allow rubbish collectors to work at the new site and we will build a fence around it.
– Sao Kunchhon,
waste management dept.
“We’re changing the place where rubbish is dumped because we want to make a good social environment in the city and [Stung Meanchey] is too near,” said Sao Kunchhon, director of the Phnom Penh’s waste management department.
“We can’t keep it like this forever,” he added, saying that it is unclear what will happen to the old dump site, but that the government is in discussions with foreign investors who might construct a power plant on the land that would use the accumulated garbage as fuel.
A new landfill capable of eventually handing 1,500 tons of rubbish a day will be opened in Bakou village, some eight kilometers outside the city near the Choeung Ek killing fields, he said, explaining that unlike Stung Meanchey, the dump will be closed to scavengers.
“According to our plan, we will not allow rubbish collectors to work at the new site and we will build a fence around it,” Kunchhon said.
This leaves people like Ny desperate over their future.
“My family’s income will be worse than today because we’ve been depending on this dump since 1992,” she said.
“I feel like I’m going to suffer a lot when the Stung Meanchey dump moves to another place. I really don’t want it to move, but I can’t stop them,” she added.
Despite the pending closure, impoverished Cambodians continue arriving at Stung Meanchey each day hoping to scavenge enough to feed their families, said Mech Sokha, director of the Center for Children to Happiness (CCH), a local NGO based at the dump that helps orphaned children and those with HIV-positive parents.
Like PSE’s Chanratha, Sokha fears that hundreds, if not thousands will be driven onto the streets when the dump closes, adding to the ranks of destitute families and street children living in ragged clusters near the capital’s main tourist areas.
“I’m worried because they will lose their jobs and there will be more street children and homeless old people in the city,” Sokha told the Post, explaining that families could sometimes earn more scavenging for a day at Stung Meanchey than they could in their rural villages.