Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Environmental activist raises concerns over sewage treatment in Siem Reap province

Wastewater flows into Siem Reap river. Photo taken in January 2022. Thon Ratha
Wastewater flows into Siem Reap river. Photo taken in January 2022. Thon Ratha

An environmental activist who served more than a year in prison in relation to his work released a video Friday that appears to show wastewater flowing into the Siem Reap, saying he was concerned about the impact on public health.

Thon Ratha, who was formerly affiliated with environmental group Mother Nature, was arrested in September 2020 and held until November 2021 on an incitement conviction for helping plan a one-person protest against the infilling of Phnom Penh lakes.

On Friday, he posted a video to Facebook showing foul-looking water, which Ratha says is untreated sewage, flowing behind markets and homes and into the Siem Reap river.

“I am concerned that this raw sewage flowing into the Siem Reap river—which ends up flowing into Tonle Sap lake—could not just tarnish Cambodia’s image but also destroy the biodiversity of the river,” Ratha says in the video.

He notes the river water is also used to water crops, grow vegetables, and raise farmed fish, causing dangers to public health.

In the film, Ratha notes that the city of Siem Reap has a 12-hectare wastewater treatment plant which took 7 years to build and cost around $14 million. But, he says, the plant appears to have been turned into a fish farm.

“I tried to find information about a new wastewater treatment plant, but I was not able to find out anything,” he said. At the end of the clip, Ratha calls on relevant officials to solve the problem and to ensure that the wastewater treatment plant resumes operation.

Siem Reap river appears black during the dry season as wastewater continues to flow into it. Photo taken in January 2022. Thon Ratha
Siem Reap river appears black during the dry season as wastewater continues to flow into it. Photo taken in January 2022. Thon Ratha

Sun Kong, provincial environment department director, denied the activist’s claim, saying that the wastewater treatment plant remains in operation, and that authorities have paid attention to ensuring the sewage system works.

“Relevant institutions have built good infrastructure, in case it has leaked somewhere that we do not know,” he said.

Kong referred further questions to the public works and transportation department.

Ly Samrith, deputy provincial governor, acknowledged that some drainage wastewater continues flowing into the river, particularly as the government works on repairs to 38 roads.

“In the past, we didn’t have a [sewage system] but now we have made it and there is still a connection for using it,” he said.  “It is not a problem [with big impacts] but it is a little bit difficult in this circumstance,” he said, adding that officials are working to reconnect any severed connections.

Wastewater flows into Siem Reap river. Photo taken in January 2022. Thon Ratha
Wastewater flows into Siem Reap river. Photo taken in January 2022. Thon Ratha

Speaking to CamboJA, Ratha said that he would continue raising attention to environmental issues, despite his imprisonment.  

“I am not worried [about re-arrest] because this video is an exercising of rights and freedom on behalf of youth who have loved the environment,” he said.

“In case I am arrested, it clearly demonstrates that Cambodia has no right to freedom of speech,” he added.

He said that if provincial authorities have no response, he will submit an official letter to meet officials to find a resolution of sewage wastewater.

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