Khai Sokheng remembers scrambling to save whatever items she could from her home before it completely collapsed into the Tonle Bassac River, not far from a stretch of the riverbed in Kandal where four companies are dredging for sand.
“I was only able to get a few things like pots and clothes,” Sokheng said, standing on the small plot of resettlement land that she was granted by authorities – along with $1,250 from the provincial Red Cross – about a kilometre away from where her house once stood.
“Living here is very difficult because we have no electricity and no water, and the road is bad.”
On Sunday, villagers who feared their homes could be the next to collapse into the water protested to demand that authorities halt sand dredging in the area. The demonstration was swiftly followed by a visit from authorities, who allegedly accused activists of “inciting” the villagers to protest. Yesterday, however, officials from the Ministry of Mines and Energy arrived to try to work out solutions with the villagers, and promised no more dredging in the immediate vicinity of their homes.
Thirty-eight-year-old Sokheng’s home crumpled into the river in March, and now her family and eight others are trying to rebuild their livelihoods after losing almost everything – a loss they blame on the dredgers.
Though an inspection by the Ministry of Mines and Energy found the riverbank collapse was due to “natural erosion”, one of the dredging companies provided $1,000 in compensation to each of the families, according to relocated villagers, and locals aren’t buying the official explanation.
The officials who visited yesterday were escorted by Provincial Military Police, spoke to villagers, and inspected different homes and examined the riverbank.
Heng Chanthoeun, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said the ministry wants a win-win situation for all.
“We, as the ministry, know and accept the concerns from the villagers,” he told a group of villagers. “Your hardship is also ours, so please, believe in us, and please be patient.”
Dith Tina, secretary of state and spokesman for the ministry, introduced two officials to the villagers, and told them the men would stay in their village to assist with any complaints that might arise.
“They will stay and monitor [the sand dredging] day and night for you, in case the sand dredging operates at night,” he told villagers.
Tina also told villagers that from now on, there won’t be any sand dredging in front of their homes.
After the meeting, however, Tina suggested villagers’ own actions could be playing a role in the collapses.
“People are worried about the sand dredging in the area,” he wrote in an email. “They are living on the edge of [the] road and riverbank.
And yet their construction in recent years [is] made of bricks and [cement] which heavily [puts] pressure on the newly refilled and instable soil. Now, the house crack and they believe it’s [caused] by sand dredging.”
Only one home, however, could be seen under construction on the very edge of the riverbank yesterday.
However, Tina said the solutions for villagers included moving the pumping stations for sand transport 50 metres away from the riverbank to remedy the noise complaints from villagers, and reinforcing the riverbank near homes along the river near a dredging zone.
“The issue is the riverbank erosion . . . [It] can be solved with riverbank reinforcement,” he wrote. “The dredging is done [there] to create a new channel for water to flow in the middle of the riverbed, instead of at the edge, and erode the riverbank.”
However, some villagers were not satisfied with the solutions offered. Chhorn Sorphea, 55, said she still lives in fear.
Her home, near the most recent collapses, has developed a crack in the floor that stretches nearly a metre – and it’s only getting bigger.
She said she wants officials to stop the sand dredging, completely.
“The homes next to me already collapsed, and I feel that my home is next,” she said.
Hun Vannak, an activist with Mother Nature, said some villagers were not happy with the solutions from the ministry. He added the ministry couldn’t even keep its promise to show villagers a copy of the companies’ licences.
Vannak also said he hopes villagers will continue to express their concerns, and not let authorities intimidate them. Two fellow Mother Nature activists, who helped coordinate Sunday’s protest, were allegedly harassed by police.
Khun Narith, Rokha Khpus commune police chief, said village authorities told villagers during yesterday’s meetings to inform authorities if someone from outside comes to live in the village.