Scores of indigenous ethnic Phnorng residents of four villages in east Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province have fallen ill after drinking contaminated water, a representative said Tuesday, as the death toll from a similar incident in neighboring Kratie province increased to 18.
Prap Chuob, a Phnorng resident of Chak Char village, in Keo Seima district’s Sre Chhouk commune, told RFA’s Khmer Service that at least 80 people in his and three other villages recently became sick last week after consuming water from a stream passing through the area that had long been used for drinking.
More than half of the 80 residents were receiving treatment at an area hospital after paying fees of between 200,000 and 400,000 riels (U.S. $50 and $100), he said, while others, who could not afford to pay for medical care, were resting at home and using traditional remedies to regain their strength.
“Those who are short of resources tried to boil tree bark as [a kind of traditional treatment],” he said, adding that, “in general, they are all facing severe hardship.”
Prap Chuob said that villagers are now afraid to use the stream for drinking water, and have no other source of water because there are no water wells, other than a limestone well, which he said is “difficult to use.”
“The villagers traditionally raise cattle, and their lives have become very difficult because of the water contamination,” he said.
According to Prap Chuob, the contamination was caused by a Chinese mining company that had been drilling upstream near the water source.
“This was done by the Chinese company—they use drilling equipment and other substances to remove stone,” he said.
In late 2017, after Chinese mining firms began to operate in the region, he said, six cattle died as the result of suspected water contamination.
Three streams run through Sre Chhouk commune—the O Chhao, O Ror Neng, and O Ka Tung—and all have historically been used for drinking water by residents. The stream network connects Ter creek to Kratie province’s Cheth Borey district, where the death toll from a river pollution incident that sickened more than 200 people in two villages earlier this month reached 18 on Tuesday.
Sre Chhouk commune chief Te Khit on Tuesday denied that residents were sickened by contaminated water, and said that an investigation conducted by provincial authorities and officials from Cambodia’s Ministry of Health had found that the 80 were suffering from “influenza.”
Most of the 46 villagers who sought medical treatment at the hospital have already returned home, he added, while authorities have educated residents about proper water sanitation techniques and donated pure drinking water to area families.
On May 10, the Ministry of Health issued a notice that Sre Chhouk commune had experienced an “epidemic,” with minister Morm Bun Heng saying that 11 people were suffering from “influenza,” and the other 73 were simply frightened by the pollution incident in Kratie province, and were merely suffering from symptoms that included headaches, diarrhea, stomach aches and dizziness.
Sok Ratha, the Mondulkiri coordinator for rights group ADHOC, told RFA that the Ministry of Environment must conduct a full investigation to determine the cause of the water contamination in Sre Chhouk commune, and take “prompt and appropriate measures” if the Chinese mining company was found to be responsible.
“If it is the result of waste dumping or the use of chemical substances as part of mining operations, the ministry must take stringent and urgent measures,” he said.
“They must not allow incidents to occur like this, whereby many residents fell sick.”
Over 200 residents of two villages in Kratie province’s Cheth Borey district were sickened, with 18 later dying, in an outbreak of illnesses beginning in early May that authorities blamed partly on the consumption of homemade wine, citing symptoms including blurred vision and shortness of breath linked to methanol poisoning.
Most of those who had fallen ill had been sickened separately by drinking river water polluted by animal waste and insecticides, though, authorities said at the time.
Last week, villagers hospitalized after drinking water taken from the polluted river began to return home, with many expressing concern that clean water distributed by authorities may soon run out, leaving them again dependent on a contaminated source.
U.S.-based advocacy group Water.org found that around four million Cambodians lack access to clean water, while some six million others lack access to proper sanitation and hygiene. Among those who face a shortage of clean water, the group said, some 80 percent live in rural areas of the country.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.