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‘The trash just floats away’

Rubbish sits next to the Bassac River in Phnom Penh yesterday morning where residents dispose of their garbage.
Rubbish sits next to the Bassac River in Phnom Penh yesterday morning where residents dispose of their garbage. Pha Lina

‘The trash just floats away’

Along a riverbank in the capital yesterday, garbage was strewn in a thick carpet 12 metres across and 10 metres long, spilling down from the embankment’s crest and directly into the water below.

A similar sight had provoked outrage just a day before, when a video showing workers sweeping trash from the Water Festival directly into the Tonle Sap river went viral. But for residents of Derm Sleng, a village in the capital’s Chbar Ampov district that remains off the garbage collection radar, such a sight has been the norm for years.

While locals yesterday acknowledged throwing their trash into huge piles of rubbish tumbling into the river was a less-than-ideal way of disposing it, they said they had no other choice, and urged the government to take action.

One Derm Sleng resident, who would only provide her given name, Srey Da, 26, said that she saw her neighbours throwing garbage into the river all the time, adding that she did the same.

“I throw it into the river,” she said. “There is no place to throw the trash and no garbage trucks come here.”

And the practice of residents dumping their rubbish into the Tonle Sap is not new, said another local woman who also asked to be identified only by her given name, Net. “It’s been going on for six to seven years,” Net said. “I want the government to take action . . . We want the garbage trucks to come here.”

Sitting just a few metres away from the huge pile of rubbish yesterday morning, Srey Da added: “The trash just floats away.” Trash-collection contractor Cintri does, in fact, maintain a pick-up site in the area, but it’s about 500 metres away, up an intermittently paved incline leading away from the bank. According to Srey Da, it’s just “easier” to throw waste into the water.

“Sometimes when Cintri comes, we don’t even know, because it’s unpredictable,” noted another resident, Sem Yan, who maintained that she burned her trash rather than dumping it into the water.

Fellow resident Ter Chantorn said the road leading to the pick-up point became almost impassable when it rained, but maintained that she, too, would “gather the trash every day and burn it” rather than dump it.

However, one bystander, who asked to be identified only as Theng, wasn’t convinced. When asked, locals often deny tossing their garbage in the water, but only to avoid taking responsibility for the problem, he said.

“It’s not an appropriate thing to do,” said Theng, who comes to the village frequently on business. “It’s ongoing.” Officials, however – much as when confronted with outrage over the Water Festival video two days earlier – appeared reluctant to take responsibility for the situation in Chbar Ampov.

City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said he wasn’t aware of the problem, but would “inform experts in that area to go take a look at the issue”. He noted that a contract was recently signed with Cintri to expand coverage in Chbar Ampov district, but declined to comment on why certain parts of the district had seemingly been neglected.

Cintri’s Khieu Vuthy, meanwhile, declined to comment on the matter. Chbar Ampov District Governor Eng Siphan said he was too busy to talk about the issue yesterday. Va Sim Soriya, spokesman for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, would only maintain that the issue was the responsibility of Cintri and City Hall.

“The ministry delegated this responsibility to the municipality and the Department of Public Works,” he said. Multiple attempts to reach Sam Piseth, director of the Department of Public Works, were unsuccessful, and he did not respond to a message.

According to Environment Minister Say Samal, many cities across the country have begun decentralising waste management to the district level in accordance with a sub-decree adopted last year. However, Phnom Penh, by far the nation’s largest city, has so far failed to do so, he added.

“Phnom Penh’s administration has not done that,” he said, adding that such decentralisation was “crucial” to offering effective service. Meanwhile, the trash heap in Derm Sleng is going nowhere – and neither is the garbage that spills off of it and flows downstream, according to Wayne Phillips, a lecturer at the Ecology Science Division at Mahidol University in Thailand.

While the immediate impact of dumping trash into the river was aesthetic, he said, as the water carries the garbage downstream, the problem only changes form. “As more plastic is discarded into the environment, it accumulates ,creating all sorts of problems,” he said. “Once in the river, if the plastic does not sink, it will float and be carried downstream to effect downstream ecosystems like mangrove forests, coral reefs and the productive delta.”

And once it makes its way into the environment, “plastic be-comes a local, regional and international problem”, he said.

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Chbar Ampov District Governor Eng Siphan.

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