Phnom Penh Struggles to Cope With Water Festival’s Trash

The crowds were still large and lively around Independence Monument late on Monday night when Khea Sarorn and Meas Sokchan walked along Suramarit Boulevard collecting the trash that had piled up over the second day of Water Festival celebrations in Phnom Penh.

Mr. Sokchan pulled a green, two-wheeled dumpster along the edge of the park while Mr. Sarorn scooped up plastic bags, food scraps and other refuse, tossed them into the cart and tamped it down.

Men sweep trash left by Water Festival attendees along Phnom Penh's riverside on Monday. (Nick Sells Photography)
Men sweep trash left by Water Festival attendees along Phnom Penh’s riverside on Monday. (Nick Sells Photography)

“People should put trash in trash cans,” Mr. Sokchan said, complaining that the city’s public bins were too few and too small to cope with the volumes of garbage the festival-goers and vendors were pumping out.

“It’s so tiring during the festival,” his workmate, Mr. Sarorn, said. “They should put out more trash cans. There aren’t enough.”

Cintri, the private company the municipal government pays to keep the city’s streets clean, hired 200 extra staff to help its regular staff of 1,570 handle the extra work. Still, waste receptacles along the Tonle Sap river were overflowing on Monday night.

Some cleaners apparently working for the city were caught on film sweeping plastic bags, food containers and other trash on the river’s edge straight into the water.

Photographer Nick Sells, who lives in Phnom Penh, said he recorded the footage after midnight and posted it to Facebook on Tuesday morning.

About seven men, who exited a blue Phnom Penh City Hall truck near the Night Market, “surveyed the area quickly, then just started sweeping into the river,” Mr. Sells said in an email on Tuesday.

A City Hall truck moves through traffic along Phnom Penh's riverside on Monday night. (Nick Sells Photography)
A City Hall truck moves through traffic along Phnom Penh’s riverside on Monday night. (Nick Sells Photography)

City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said he was unaware of the video, but insisted that the city had made efforts to keep Phnom Penh clean for the festival.

“There are a lot of trash cans,” said Mr. Chanyada, unsure of just how many new bins were put out during the festival. But he said it was four or fives times the usual number.

The spokesman said the Ministry of Public Works and Transport had also hired 290 additional public park cleaners.

“If we didn’t add additional cleaners, maybe our Phnom Penh would become a city of trash,” he said.

Nearly 2,000 tons of garbage were collected in Phnom Penh on Monday, and more than 2,100 tons the day before, according to data from Cintri posted online by City Hall.

Tit Chanda, the head of Cintri’s cleaning department, said employees were paid extra for working over the festival: about $3.75 a day for street sweepers and twice that for trash collectors.

Standing across the street from Wat Botum Park at about 1 a.m. on Tuesday, street sweeper Leng Neth said she had planned to work all three days of the festival.

“I just want to make extra money,” she said.

Earlier in the night, as fireworks boomed and lit up the sky overhead, festival-goer Soung Sitha said the night would have been more enjoyable with less trash scattered about.

“There’s a lot of people. There’s a lot of trash,” Ms. Sitha said. “There are trash cans, but they’re all full.”

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