Authorities will not renew operating licenses for sand-dredging companies in Cambodia if impact studies on the industry are not completed by the time the licenses expire at year-end, a ministry official said Friday.
Around 20 companies currently have licenses allowing them to legally dredge in the country, but they will expire in December, Meng Saktheara, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The sand-dredging companies whose licenses will expire must request extensions, but we [the ministry] won't extend any licenses until we conclude environmental studies" for the industry, he said, because of the negative consequences of sand dredging, such as deadly river bank collapses.
Meng Saktheara said in the past the ministry only conducted environmental and social impact studies in specific cases where companies had requested to dredge, but now it will conduct an industry-wide assessment to ensure all companies operate sustainably.
"Before we studied only specific areas, but now we want to study collectively,” he said. “We want to study the entire impact. We must take it seriously.”
“The government must take community consultations into consideration to ensure that the sand dredging will not affect local communities, but generate profit for them."
For companies whose licenses have already expired, the ministry will not renew them until the impact study is complete, he said, adding that only companies with valid licenses can legally operate in the meantime.
The Ministry of Mines and Energy started issuing sand-dredging licenses in 2006, though many companies forgo the licenses and operate illegally.
Meng Saktheara said that a ban, issued by the ministry in January, on sand dredging in areas along the Mekong River, including some parts of the capital Phnom Penh, and Prey Veng and Kandal provinces, remained in effect.
At a meeting with sand-dredging companies on Wednesday in Phnom Penh, ministry officials warned representatives to stop operating illegally without licenses or face imprisonment and fines.
Dith Tina, a spokesman and secretary of state at the ministry, said the government would conduct studies annually to determine new locations for sand-dredging and prevent possible river bank collapses.
He ordered all companies with expired licenses to cease operations and to expect a wait of three to six months before reapplying so that the government has enough time to complete its impact assessments, despite objections by company representatives.
"We will firmly implement the law if their licenses are not valid,” Dith Tina said. “The new study will likely last for three to six months.”
On Thursday, military police working in tandem with the Ministry of Mines and Energy arrested three owners of sand dredging companies for operating without licenses in Phnom Penh and Kandal province, according to a report by the Cambodia Daily.
Negative effect on business
The sand-dredging companies have complained that waiting as many as six months to operate would negatively affect their businesses.
“If we can continue our business, we will make profits; otherwise, we will lose workers and our equipment,” said Moung Saokhorn, a representative from one such company.
Additionally, a construction company representative complained that the lack of sand has pushed up prices by 50 percent, restricting his ability to purchase concrete.
Environmentalists argue that sand dredging endangers villagers and damages local ecosystems.
In February 2014, a family of three was washed away when an embankment on a heavily dredged bend of the Mekong River in Kandal province collapsed into the water, taking their home with it.
Officials at the time said the incident was the result of 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.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had imposed a ban on dredging along the Mekong River and Lake Tonle Sap in October 2013, 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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.