Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday ordered officials to take action against unnamed companies he said were using the cover of night to illegally dredge sand from the Mekong River.
Calling on Water Resources and Meteorology Minister Lim Kean Hor to lead the crackdown, Hun Sen also said some companies with licences were operating in the wrong areas.
“And the other was mobile only at night for illegal sand dredging in the river, and I told HE Lim Kean Hor to search for this company,” he said in a speech to about 15,000 villagers, government officials and foreign dignitaries attending the inauguration of a container terminal at the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port in the Kien Svay district of Kandal province, about 30 kilometres east of Phnom Penh.
Hun Sen did not single out any companies by name, but according to a document obtained by the Post early last year, several local companies had applied for sand-dredging licences in the Mekong and Tonle Bassac rivers.
The ministry elected to license only three of them.
The application, in March, listed the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port, Veasna Commercial Import & Export, Lim Yos Sophal Co, Privay Mining, NARA LNT Co, Mekong Dredging Sand, Bassac Dredging Sand and MBS Mekong Bay Sand.
Kean Hor and Mao Hak, director of river works at the Ministry of Water Resources, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said he could not comment unless a specific location was under scrutiny.
Large-scale dredging operations scoop up huge quantities of sand near shorelines and resell it to feed construction projects abroad.
A source of great profit for those involved, dredging can also cause erosion, undermine river banks and decimate fish stocks, environmentalists argue.
In 2009, Hun Sen imposed a total ban on marine dredging for export, except where sand gathered and replenished itself naturally or where build-ups were obstructing waterways.
The moratorium received more attention in 2011, when the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology ordered the “King of Koh Kong”, ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat, to stop his company’s sand-dredging operation on the Tatai River amid concerns that it was ruining the waterway tourist trade.
Business owners in the area complained that after a short halt in dredging, it started back up again later in the year under the name of a different company.
In his speech yesterday, Hun Sen added that individual private companies operate only in areas with vast stores of sand in the riverbeds, but failed to work in places where dredging helped clear obstructed waterways, because they offered less of a yield. He offered his own predicament as an example.
“This is cause of the collapse of riverbanks, such as my [relative’s] house [in Kampong Cham], it’s located about one kilometre from the riverbank, and now the riverbank collapsed close to my house which almost had to be removed last year. Therefore we have to consider these challenges,” he said.
“The erosion of riverbanks in some other areas is caused from the uncertain direction of the waterway.”
His comments came on the heels of a speech by the minister of Public Works and Transportation, Tram Iv Teuk, who asked in the same inauguration ceremony for approval to dredge in certain water routes, because shallow levels had been impeding ships.
In his speech, the minister requested that five channels for ship navigation along the Mekong River in Kampong Cham and Kandal provinces be restored.
“The aim is to ensure waterways for navigation to the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port; the waterway is seven metres deep,” said Teuk.
But Hun Sen also blasted officials for lacking a master plan for the ports that looked at both the sustainability of rivers in Cambodia and business needs.
“The port sector only considered its channel for navigation, without considering all the rivers,” said Hun Sen.
“We considered about the channels for navigation, but we did not consider about the impact of the changing direction of waterways [from sand dredging].”
To contact the reporter on this story: Vong Sokheng at [email protected]