A few meters away from the Mekong River’s eroding current, heaps of scrap lumber, stubby concrete pilings and other remnants of hastily removed dwellings litter the bank. Cracks in the baked dirt mark the next slabs of earth to collapse and wash away.
Svay Chrum village in Khsach Kandal district, Kandal province, is on a strip of ground bordered by the river on one side and weed-choked reservoirs on the other. It also sits on the inside of a bend in the river, where the current is swiftest and eats at the bank in an effort to straighten its course.
Every year, the village loses a few centimeters of real estate to erosion. But this year, only part of the way into the rainy season, more than a meter of land has disappeared, said Tes Nol, the vice-chief of Svay Chrum commune.
Upstream is Oknha Tey island, an obstruction that forces the river to divide itself into tighter channels. The Chea Sun Hak Co has been dredging in the island’s eddy, selling the rocks and sand from the river bottom as building materials. But before shipping the choice sediments downstream, all of the spoil is pumped onto Oknha Tey island, significantly increasing its mass.
A river’s velocity depends on its volume and the size of its channel. Increasing the size of an island is like slipping a finger into an open spigot. The greater the impediment, the more violently the water escapes past it.
Keong Samon, 48, and her husband own the two boats that ferry people and cargo between Svay Chrum village and Chroy Changva on the opposite bank. Since the end of last month, the couple have used just one boat to carry people, she said. The other boat is used to push the first to the opposite shore. Alone, the ferries would be swept downstream, she said, just as the dock to which they once tied recently was.
In the past two and a half weeks 20 families—all of them squatters—have torn down and rebuilt their homes farther away from the river, Tes Nol said.
“People have asked for help, but we have no ability to do anything for them,” he said.
Bun Sok Chea, 32, pointed across the river to the Chea Sun Hak Co and said, “It is the company’s mistake. They don’t care about our lives. I went to the commune authority and stood up with other people. The company stopped but only for a few days before continuing their operation.”
At the Chea Sun Hak Co, a woman who was pointed out as the company’s owner would say nothing except that the dredging had been authorized by the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a ministry official said Tuesday that the Chea Sun Hak Co had been authorized to dredge just below Oknha Tey island. He also said that he fears the company has strayed outside its allotted area and that the ministry will investigate.
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