The narrow O’Brong stream splits the Samraong Tong and Oral districts in Kampong Speu province. On one bank is Taing Snor village and across the narrow waterbody is Monorom village.
Villagers from both villages use the stream to irrigate their fields, for drinking water and to catch small fish. The stream provided the families with livelihood and sustenance – a small lifeline for this rural community.
In 2019, they noticed that the water was not potable and sections of the stream were black in color and gurgling. It emitted a foul smell that wafted up to 200 meters from the stream.
“When the factory started operations in 2019, water in the entire stream turned black and bubbled, making the fish die and now we have no more fish to eat,” said Lay Ratha, 46, who lives in Taing Snor village.
The factory is on the Oral district bank of the stream. There is no signboard outside, and villagers speculate it is Chinese owned.
Chan Sophorn, 44, works at the factory. Even he is unaware of the name because he cannot read English or Chinese.
“I cannot read because all products are written in Chinese and English language,” he said.
He said the factory produces products including mango jam, cigarettes and fish sauce. The factory had suspended operations, Sophorn said, waiting for the seasonal crop of mangoes.
A security guard outside the factory did not know the name of the factory. He only pointed to his uniform which has the letters “CSAS” emblazoned on the cap. CSAS Security Co. Ltd. is a Phnom Penh-based firm that provides security guards for businesses, according to their Facebook page.
Villagers on both banks claimed the mysterious deterioration of their stream was linked to the nameless factory. CamboJA reporter visited the factory and found that operations had been stopped and there was no signboard anywhere along the boundary wall.
For the last few years, the villagers have been supplementing their water needs from a pond at the O’Brong pagoda. But most residents are paying for drinkable water.
Ratha, who is the Taing Snor’s village security guard, said families were spending as much as $9 each time they ordered water; he had spent $35 last month. Others have attempted to dig wells.
“We have protested many times and asked the authorities to help find a solution, but there has been no result so far,” Ratha said.
Ratha was irate that the factory, which is mostly operational during the mango harvest season, was not providing long-term jobs to villagers and was instead polluting their only source of water.
Soon after the villagers complained of the tainted stream, local authorities came to inspect the waterbody’s health, but have not conveyed any findings to the villagers.
Try Ron is a farmer who lives in Monorom village. The stream was critical for his crops. Last year, he reminisced about the “clear as glass” waters of the O’Brong stream. He has not used the stream in a while.
“It irritates the skin, even if you use soap to clean it. We do not know what is in the water and during the rainy season it stinks even more,” he said.
Two years after the problem started, local officials have done nothing to resolve the issue, villagers said. Officials claimed to be in the dark about the factory and the causes for the polluted canal.
Chhay Soeung, a commune chief in Samraong Tong district, said 68 families in Taing Snor village and another 57 families downstream had complained about the stinky and gurgling waters. He said that the stream was not smelling after the factory suspended operations last month.
“Residents here used to complain to the commune authority about this, but since the factory was suspended there is no stench. People are keeping silent now and there is no other request at this time,” he said.
He said he was unaware of who owned the factory or what it produced.
Em Sokun, director of the provincial environment department, could not be reached for comment.
Kampong Speu Governor Vy Samnang said he was not aware of the issue and would send officials from the Environment Department to investigate the polluted canal.
He took offense to questions about the identity of the company and if it was legally registered, given that it was not displaying a signboard or any identifying information.
“How can I know which company it is because there are hundreds of factories in Kampong Speu? Give me time to check this and thank you for your information” he said.
Rath Thavy, a provincial coordinator for local rights group ADHOC, said was unusual, and likely illegal, for a company to function without disclosing its activities or name, and it was questionable that local authorities claimed ignorance of its existence.
“It is not a secret thing,” Thavy said. “The government as well as provincial-level officials have their grassroots networks, so why do they not know about this?” he asked.
Lay Chivoan sits outside her house making a birdcage. The 35-year-old resident of Taing Snor village said it was true the water was no longer smelling bad, but that villagers were not using it for drinking or irrigation.
She speculated that local officials had corrupt motives for not acting against the factory.
“They get money and leave the issue unresolved. As you know, when they get money, they leave and do not find a settlement for the people,” she said.