Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered government planners Tuesday to draw up a master plan to dredge sand from the Mekong River, saying it was aimed at restoring shallow areas along the waterway.
Sand that is dredged from Cambodia's portion of the river can also be exported to draw more revenue for the country, he said at an inauguration ceremony for a U.S. $28 million container terminal on the Mekong River in Kien Svay district in Kandal province, about 30 kilometers (nearly 19 miles) east of the capital Phnom Penh.
The terminal was built with a soft loan from the government of China, which is Cambodia's top ally, investor and aid provider.
Hun Sen told the Ministry of Public Works, the Ministry of Water Resources, and the National Mekong Committee to work together to draw up the master plan for dredging sand from the Mekong River, whose lower stretches are shared by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
Under the blueprint, private companies will dredge sand from the river and sell it as export to foreign countries, he said.
“We must use the river to save the river,” Hun Sen said.
“We must think about the river as a whole. If we don’t resolve [the issues], we don’t know what could happen in the future.”
He said the Ministry of Public Works has so far only worked on digging sand along riverbeds to improve navigation but now he wants it to carry out sand dredging activities to rectify areas which are shallow.
He said that shallow parts of the river were causing "movements" that could result in riverbanks collapsing.
It was not clear from Hun Sen’s remarks how the government will implement the new sand dredging strategy or where along the Mekong River will sand be dredged.
Previous efforts to dredge sand from riverbeds in Cambodia have been criticized by environmentalists and villagers.
Digging up sand from the riverbed may allow easier navigation for ships but environmentalists and villagers said it has caused riverbanks to collapse, harming the river’s ecosystem.
Extracting sand from riverbeds also affects marine life on the river’s floor, as well as the spawning grounds that replenish it.
Villagers have complained their houses have collapsed due to nearby sand mining projects, calling for dredging activities to be regulated by the government.
In 2009, the government banned exports of sand dredged along the Tatai River in southwestern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province and sold to Singapore for land reclamation.
Continued dredging after the ban sparked protests later that year among locals concerned about damage to fish stocks and ecotourism projects.
Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee, one of the three agencies that will help draw up the dredging master plan, represents the country at the Mekong River Commission.
The commission is an intergovernmental institution among lower Mekong countries Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand aimed at overseeing the management and development of the river.
Reported and translated by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.