Representatives of some 3,000 families from Russey Srok commune in Prey Veng province’s Peam Chor district have accused local authorities of abusing their power by selling water pumped from three state canals to villagers.
A representative, Dam Mean, said villagers have relied on the canals, which range from 4-6km in length, to irrigate their cash crops. But he alleged they are now required to pay 450,000 riel ($110) per hectare for water pumped from the canals.
He said the canals were built in 2014 by Pen Nuon, an adviser to Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, for collective use. But the local authorities instead charged villagers 200,000 riel for water pumping before increasing it to 300,000 riel in 2017 and 450,000 riel starting last year.
“I just wonder why the commune chief and his officials are using public canals for their own benefit by charging villagers who pump water to irrigate their rice fields and cash crops.
“If villagers can’t afford the 450,000 riel, they are required to give 180kg of wheat to the authorities. And if they don’t have anything in exchange at all, they would not be allowed to pump the water,” he claimed.
Russey Srok commune chief Noun Meng denied the accusation, though he acknowledged that the authorities had managed the canals and maintained the water pumping fee of 200,000 riel per hectare since 2014.
The commune chief alleged that Nuon, who built the canal, now wanted to privatise them.
“Nuon is behind it. He incited villagers to protest against the local authorities because he wants the three canals for himself.
“He wanted me to sign the paperwork transferring ownership to him so that he can open a firm in the commune to take all the proceeds from water pumping.
“Actually, most people in the commune are willing to pay the 200,000 riel fees. Only a handful of them are protesting,” he claimed.
Peam Chor district governor Seng Thea said both the commune authority and villagers’ representatives have filed complaints to court and the provincial administration. He said he had tried to mediate in the dispute on many occasions but to no avail.
“Both sides wouldn’t listen to me and only want to win the case. They have now lodged complaints to court and the provincial administration.
“Once it reaches the court, the only thing I can do is implement its ruling. Meanwhile, I can only prevent both sides from acting violently,” he said.
Prey Veng governor Chea Somethy could not be reached for comment.
Nuon rejected the commune chief’s allegation.
“I just want the authorities to stop charging villagers for pumping water from the canals as they cannot afford it.
“Their rice and crop yields are not good and cannot be sold at a high price. If they are still required to pay the fees, they will surely face hardships,” he said.