Cambodia has made plans to dredge sand from the Mekong River and its Bassac River branch to expand navigation channels and ease shipping trade with Vietnam, sparking concerns about the plan’s environmental impact.
The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology said its plan to restore the riverbeds in southern Cambodia and sell the dug-up sand overseas has received approval from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The government’s policy is to restore the riverbeds. We are dredging the sand and selling it,” ministry head Lim Kean Hor said on Feb. 29.
The plan stems from a study showing that the two rivers’ beds are getting shallow due to last year’s floods, the ministry said.
The floods, which were the worst to hit the region on over a decade, have brought extra sand from landslides, making the routes difficult for ships to navigate, it said.
“I would like to stress that if we don’t restore the Bassac River, it won’t flow anymore,” Lim Kean Hor said in a December 2011 letter to the administration obtained by RFA.
“There is too much sand. The river is almost drying out,” he said.
The Bassac River runs parallel to the Mekong, Southeast Asia’s main waterway, as it flows south from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh into Vietnam.
Environmentalists are concerned the dredging on the rivers will harm the region’s ecology.
Extracting sand from the riverbeds disturbs life on the river’s floor, as well as the spawning grounds that replenish it.
“It will create tremendous effects. We know that fish eat food that lives in the riverbeds,” said an environmentalist in Cambodia who did not wish to be named.
The ministry is awaiting official approval of the dredging companies before the digging begins, and has not said how long the project will take.
The ministry will require the dredging companies to deposit U.S. $2 million, which the government will keep if the company harms the environment, Kim Leam Hor said in the letter.
The ministry has not said which countries will be buying the sand.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government had banned sand exports in May 2009, after sand dredged from the Tatai River in southwestern Cambodia and sold to Singapore triggered international controversy.
Continued dredging after the ban sparked protests later that year among locals concerned about damage to fish stocks and ecotourism projects.
A 2010 report from the U.K. and U.S.-based environmental group Global Witness estimated Koh Kong province alone had an annual trade with Singapore worth U.S. $248 million in a year, including in protected wildlife areas, digging up some 796,000 tons of sand per month.
Singapore was using the sand for land reclamation, for which it has imported sand from other Southeast Asian countries for decades.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam have placed restrictions on sand exports because of the environmental destruction it causes.
The Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s main waterway, runs from the Tibetan plateau in China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Reported by RFA's Cambodian service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.