Updated at 01:05 P.M. EST on 2015-03-30
Cambodia has put a hold on new applications for licenses to conduct sand-dredging operations in the country's rivers and lakes in order to study the environmental and social impact of a practice that has caused deadly incidents of river bank collapse.
Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem told a news conference on Wednesday that the environmental and social impact studies will determine the future of sand dredging. Much of the sand is exported to neighboring Southeast Asian countries and used in construction.
“The government will also stop issuing any new licenses until the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Mines and Energy discuss with local authorities at all levels first,” he said.
Suy Sem didn’t say when the studies will begin or how long they will take.
Under the policy, holders of sand dredging business licenses must submit new applications, he added.
However, Suy Sem said in order to meet local demand for sand, companies who hold valid licenses can apply to extend their permit dredge sand at existing dredging sites. They will not be permitted to open new dredging sites during the moratorium period.
“In order to avoid illegal sand dredging, we can extend licenses to meet sand demand," he said, promising quick approval to applications to continue existing dredging.
Many unlicensed dredging firms
Suy Sem said that there are 142 sand dredging companies operating in Cambodia, but only 37 of them have licenses.
“Companies whose licenses are expired must stop to avoid breaking the law. We are working hard to extend their licenses in a short period of time, but if they continue to operate, they will be prosecuted, “he said.
Military Police Commander in Chief Sao Sokha said he would cooperate with the two ministries to stop illegal sand dredging.
Minister of Environment Say Sam Al said the government will conduct studies along rivers, tributaries, and the sea coast to determine which areas can sustain exploitation of sand.
He rejected the notion that dredging was the sole cause of river collapses and landslides, saying natural erosion was also a factor.
“If we can find out some areas are shallow and the stream is strong, we can help take the sand out to reduce impact,” he said.
Environmentalists say 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 in October 2013 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.
Reported for RFA's Khmer Service by Ouk Savborey. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a temporary halt to all sand-dredging operations had been ordered in Cambodia. The moratorium applies only to the granting of new licenses.