Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

As rampant filling of waterways continues, government promotes effective water management

Cham fishermen stay on a boat on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. Picture taken June 2, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Cham fishermen stay on a boat on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. Picture taken June 2, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Speaking at the 4th Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Japan, Prime Minister Hun Sen said water should be regarded as “white gold” for inclusive social and economic development.

Hun Sen spoke at the April 23 summit themed on “Water for Sustainable Development,” in which he said the Cambodian government always prioritizes water management in its national framework.

“Cambodia will continue to cooperate with concerned parties under the regional and global mechanism to strengthen and promote governance and water management effectively in order to reach the goal of water for sustainable development,” he said. 

Hun Sen said involved parties need to promote the development and integration of infrastructure to support water management networks. He also promoted green development, especially for the agricultural sector, which consumes huge amounts of water.

Water is essential to life in Cambodia as most know it, but a series of domestic and regional issues are reworking the landscape of the country’s waterways.

Downstream Mekong countries such as Cambodia face increasingly steep challenges due mostly to falling water levels in the river. On a local level, developers are steadily filling in natural lakes, channels and even some parts of rivers to make way for projects.

Major landfilling projects have long drawn concerns for its environmental costs, since neither the state nor private developers typically release impact assessments. Environmental observers say landfilling only hurts the government’s water management goals, as residents depend on this access to water for crops and farming. If they lose the water, many may lose their daily living.

Ham Oudom, an independent consultant for natural resource governance, told CamboJA the Mekong’s downstream countries have been hit with negative impacts by irregular water levels.  Oudom said the water has fallen as a result of hydroelectric dams upstream, particularly in China.

“The notable impact we have seen is the shortage of water volume, which causes the irregular changes in water level that affect farmers’ livelihoods along the river,” he said. “For the past few years, the water levels in the Tonle Sap have [also been] getting lower due to more hydro dams built upstream, which block water from flowing into the lake.” 

Oudom said the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental governance mechanism, does not work due to its lack of coercive power among members. A lack of such power would make it difficult for lower Mekong countries such as Cambodia to manage the river’s water for sustainable development. 

“In real practice, it is not consistent with what the leader has said. The messages sometimes just want to make the public feel warm, but in real practice, solutions are limited,” he said. “It needs cooperation both in bilateral and multiple ways, as some countries are under the influence of China, so the conservation of the Mekong is also limited.” 

He said as climate change has contributed to flash flooding, the filling of lakes has narrowed waterways used to prevent such floods.

“In a development scenario that puts too much emphasis on economic growth, we would have a negative impact more than the economic value, because some ecosystems will not regenerate,” he said, adding that landfilling specifically requires attention.

Chan Youttha, spokesman of the Ministry of Water Resource and Meteorology, declined comment.

However, according to the ministry’s 2021-2023 strategy plan, most Cambodians are short of water during the dry season due to lack of infrastructure. 

The ministry said in the plan the government is currently invested in building and restoring irrigation systems to better manage water resources.

The plan also states the ministry prioritizes the restoration, construction and maintenance of the existing water release and flood control systems for lakes and channels to improve the irrigation of farmland. 

Cambodia’s main water resource comes from the Mekong, as well as its offshoots the Tonle Sap lake and river. These bodies of water are key for sustaining fisheries and the agricultural sector as a whole.

The large-scale filling of the Mekong in Phnom Penh and Kandal province, such as with the expansion of both Koh Pich and Koh Norea, are hardly the only cases of land reclamation across the kingdom, but they are highly visible. 

Koh Norea is destined to be a massive satellite city built by mega-project developer OCIC, which also expanded Koh Pich and is overseeing construction of the new Phnom Penh airport. Across the Mekong from the islands, the Khun Sear Import Export company is filling in a  70-hectare site for another satellite city along Arey Ksat village in Kandal province.

The project is developed by the well-connected real estate tycoon Khun Sear, for whom the company is named. The satellite cities are currently being developed through an identical land-filling process, narrowing the mainstream of the Mekong. 

A man fills up on water from a big tank provided by the owner of Borey Chhoukva 2 on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Picture taken on February 1, 2022. CamboJA/ Sovann Sreypich

According to the non-governmental organization Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) in a report last year, the government has declared the lake Boeung Tamok, also known as Boeung Kobsrov, to be public, state-owned property. However, that was later revised at least 17 times to privatize the former lake, which covered a total area of 3,239.7 hectares. The new land that fills the lake is currently being parceled off for development to companies and individuals.

The report said that, surrounding the lake, there are about 300 families and 1,000 people, many of whom earn a living through fishing, aquaculture farming, and home-based businesses.

Hun Sen himself repeats that filling some lakes in Phnom Penh is necessary to create land for developments. But has also said he is against the unrelated practice of damming rivers or blocking waterways.

STT executive director Soeung Saran said filling lakes has an impact​ on livelihoods as people rely on water while facing forced eviction. Saran also pointed out that filling lakes and rivers would reduce the level of water storage to prevent flooding. 

“It served as a reservoir to prevent the city from flooding,” he said. “In addition, it is a loss to biodiversity because a lake such as Boeung Tompoun may be home to endangered species.”

According to an earlier STT report from 2020, more than one million people across Phnom Penh are facing the risk of increased flooding while at least one thousand more families are at risk of evictions, loss of income and food insecurity. The report pointed specifically to the ING City project and other unsustainable developments destroying the Tompoun, or Cheung Ek wetlands in the capital’s south.

The report estimated more than 90 percent of the wetlands will be destroyed, and said the Bassac and Mekong rivers will be polluted because of these developments.

Close to home, clean water is still often short of supply during the dry season in Phnom Penh, especially on the capital’s outskirts.

Suon Ramy, a resident of Trapaing Thnong village in Pur Senchey district, told CamboJA that local villagers now have access to clean water from the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, connected after three years of living there.

However, Ramy said people in the village remain reliant on lake water, which is running out.

“The lake [Boeung Chhouk] is not filled yet. .. If not for this lake, people would have nothing to use,” she said. “When there are not many people, we can normally use tap water. But when the number of users increases, we cannot open the tap until mid-night.”