Three Cambodians Missing After Mekong Bank Collapse

Villagers say the cave-in was caused by illegal sand dredging.

A map showing Preah Prasop commune in Cambodia's Kandal province.

Authorities in Cambodia’s Kandal province are searching for a family of three believed drowned after an embankment on a heavily dredged bend of the Mekong River collapsed into the water, taking their home with it.

Officials said the incident on Tuesday evening in Preah Prasop commune in Kandal’s Ksach Kandal district was a “natural disaster,” but residents claimed that boats illegally dredging sand for export along the river had weakened the banks, which caused the deadly cave-in.

Police said they deployed dive teams after the collapse occurred, but fear the three people may have drowned.

Those missing are believed to be a 40-year-old woman, her son, and grandson, according to authorities, who said that a fourth person was injured in the incident and was currently being treated at a local hospital.

A villager named Ven Noy told RFA’s Khmer Service that it was unlikely for the three to have survived.

“The pillows and blankets are floating to the surface,” he said.

“I think the bodies are probably trapped inside the house.”

Other residents of Preah Prasop said “experts” were on their way to assist in search efforts and that they had not given up hope of finding the three people.

Cause of collapse

Tor Yun, chief of the commune, which lies about 30 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of the capital Phnom Penh, said authorities had warned that the river bank might cave in but that villagers had remained in the area, calling the incident a “natural disaster.”

He said that during the dry season in Cambodia, the waters of the Mekong recede into the nearby Ton Le Sap River, and the low water level may have caused the bank to give way.

“We are asking the villagers not to build homes close to the river to avoid another disaster,” he said.

But several villagers told RFA that they believed the collapse was the result of sand dredging operations, which they said continue “day and night,” despite a government ban on the practice along the Mekong and the Ton Le Sap since October.

The landlord of the collapsed home, Leap Chheng Souy, said Tuesday’s incident was “the first time that the river bank had collapsed” in the area.

He said that nearby stretches of the Mekong had often been used for sand dredging during the past five years.

Other witnesses said that there was no indication that the bank was in danger of collapse before Tuesday, suggesting that riverbed excavation far below the land’s surface had caused it to cave in.

Villager Ven Noy said “there were a few cracks” on the bank before the collapse.

During the rescue operation, RFA reporters witnessed boats loaded full of sand on the river.

Dredging plan

Environmentalists say sand dredging endangers villagers and damages local ecosystems.

Prime Minister Hun Sen imposed a ban in October last year on dredging along the Mekong and Ton Le Sap, but less than two months later the Cambodia Daily reported that the Ministry of Water Resources had impounded five barges in Kandal province for flouting the suspension.

In December, residents of Kandal’s Ksach Kandal district held a protest along the banks of the Mekong against five other barges also pumping sand in an apparent violation of the government ban, the report said.

Complaining that the dredging would cause the riverbank to collapse, organizers said the company which owned the boats had been given a license to operate which was later nullified by the government, but had continued to work in the area.

Reported by Van Vicha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.