Kampong Trach district authorities in Kampot province have ordered a temporary halt to the excavation of the O’Chro Neang dam and its reservoir in Kampong Trach Kaang Lech commune after protests by local villagers on March 21.

Officials said the dam restoration was important because its reservoir would dry up completely in the dry season and then flood in the rainy season.

Villagers, however, alleged that the excavation was being done for business purposes and that it had created a large hole in land they use to grow crops.

“We have 25ha of land on the dam for growing crops. We request that the authorities determine the boundaries clearly because the machinery excavating the land seems to be out of control,” said Men Sopheap, a 37-year-old resident of Kampong Trach commune’s Village II.

Son Trey, 52, another resident from Doeum Char village, said the machinery was not excavating at any place in particular but was digging out some parts randomly.

“No one has a legal title to the land in the area of the dam, but the villagers here have occupied it going all the way back to their ancestors,” he said.

Commune chief Chen Tann said the restoration began after discussions at commune and district levels.

“The district and commune councils concluded that if we don’t restore this dam then we won’t have enough water to use. It has been flooding in the rainy season and it dries up in the dry season.

“We can’t wait for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology to do it because it doesn’t have any money in its budget for the work.

“So, we decided to let a private company do it and they will sell the soil they dig out in exchange for the restoration of the dam to where it is able to store water for the villagers to use,” he said.

However, he said that because there were people protesting against the restoration, the authorities had decided to temporarily stop the excavation and wait for a decision from the upper levels.

Yun Phally, Kep-Kampot provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said if the work was being done by the water resources ministry, a clear plan would be in place to demarcate where to dig to restore the dam to where it could store more water.

However, he said it would still be a good thing if the local authorities were able to dig the reservoir deeper to ensure water storage for the dry season and that the local residents should trust the authorities to do what is necessary to restore the functioning of the dam and its reservoir.

“We must allow the state to develop or restore the reservoirs and canals,” he said.