Amid public criticism of fast-accumulating litter during the Water Festival, a video circulated on social media yesterday took the outcry to a new pitch, showing exactly how some cleaning crews were dealing with the problem – by sweeping the trash directly into the Tonle Sap river.
Cintri Cambodia Ltd – which contracts with the capital for waste management – City Hall representatives and Phnom Penh’s Department of Public Works all declined to take responsibility for the workers in the video and brushed off the issue, saying it wasn’t a serious issue.
While difficult to distinguish any identifying uniforms in the video that might show who employed the workers, the Department of Public Works posted photos on its Facebook page of what appeared to be its own personnel also sweeping trash into the river.
As of last night, the video – shot by local photographer Nick Sells – had been viewed about 211,000 times. Interviewed yesterday, several festival-goers said they were appalled by the video, though some also blamed careless attendees for the behaviour that led to the trash pile-up in the first place.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada declined to comment on the issue, but insisted it was only a minor problem. He said officials were doing better to clean the rubbish during this year’s three-day festivities than they had in years past.
A total of 1,700 workers from Cintri and 290 from the Department of Public Works were out in force during the three days to clean up after the celebrations, Chanyada said.
“We try hard to collect the trash,” he said. “We are working a lot to clean it.”
Cintri’s Khieu Vuthy maintained the workers seen in the video were not Cintri workers, and would only maintain that the firm had sent out “many extra workers” to clean up the area.
Sam Piseth, director of the Department of Public Works, said he couldn’t comment on whether the workers on the video were his employees before checking with his staff, and hung up on a reporter when asked to explain the photo on his department’s Facebook page.
Meanwhile, Va Sim Soriya, spokesman for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, maintained that the only bodies responsible for the workers sweeping rubbish into the river were Cintri and City Hall.
“The ministry is not in charge,” he said, adding that the ministry couldn’t do much as the problem was outside its jurisdiction.
However, he acknowledged that this was a recurring issue for big holiday celebrations, adding that it made him “very sad”.
Environment Minister Say Samal yesterday said that simply pushing the trash into the river “was not a good way” of dealing with the rubbish, and acknowledged it could have environmental impacts.
“Let’s be crystal clear that Cintri needs to improve both their capability and capacity,” he said, adding that festival-goers also need to be more conscious of how they dispose of their waste.
If it were Public Works employees responsible for the pollution, he added, they should be educated and face disciplinary action.
In remarks representative of the views of several festival attendees interviewed yesterday, Van Tey, 28, of Kampong Speu, said that what the workers did was “very bad”.
“The workers should have collected the trash,” he said. “The river is very important.”
Grace Smith, who co-founded an initiative dubbed Keep Phnom Penh Clean about seven months ago, said it was “absolutely terrible and shocking” to see that the workers were sweeping the trash into the river.
“The impact is horrendous,” she said. “Hopefully, next time for the festival, we can have more systems in place.”
Yesterday evening, a small group of people with Keep Phnom Penh Clean, took to the festival armed with plastic gloves and large trash bags to collect trash. Some of the volunteers drew stares as they went around picking up trash, with some bystanders even thanking and taking photos with one.
Watching the effort, onlooker Kuoch Tory Hau said, “It’s special.”