For decades, the vast lakes and wetlands fringing Cambodia’s capital have been home to thousands of people making a living from the water — fishing and harvesting vegetables for market.
Now they face eviction, as politically well-connected land speculators push them out.
“If they fill in the lakes I am not sure where we will go,” says Pov as she works along the ropes strung on the water’s surface, cutting mimosa and morning glory.
Pov first started making her living here a decade ago, and even though the lakes form the city’s main sewerage treatment system, she says the water was clean enough to bathe in.
“It smells now. In the past it was not like this,” Pov says while breaking off handfuls of mimosa and throwing them in a pile in her boat.
“Some of us get strange itches. A friend’s hands, arms and legs became swollen because of the water.”
Phnom Penh is in the grip of a real estate explosion, with sky-high glass towers rising from millions of tonnes of sand pumped from the Mekong and other rivers into what was once a chain of huge wetlands.
Pov and the hundreds of others eking out a living on Boeung Tompun (Lake Tompun) are watching as the sand-pumping draws nearer, and her stretch of water shrinks further.
Under Cambodian law, waterways are owned by the state. However, in 2006, in a behind-closed-doors deal, the Hun Sen Government gave one of the country’s most powerful tycoons, Ing Bun Hoaw, the go-ahead to fill Boeung Tompun and the adjoining Boeung Choeung Ek.
The lakes are being developed into a multi-billion-dollar satellite city known as ING City, three kilometres from the centre of old Phnom Penh. It’s the largest development in Cambodia and rivals anything in South East Asia, at a staggering 2,752 hectares.
‘You have to wonder how much is being paid to who’
Bun Hoaw is a former secretary of transport, and a businessman whose trading company grew from a start-up in 1993 to make him one of Cambodia’s most powerful movers and shakers. His honorific “Oknha” (equivalent to “Lord”) is bestowed on people who have donated at least $135,427 to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. A boulevard in central Phnom Penh is named in his honour.
Questions submitted by the ABC to the Government and to Bun Hoaw about this land grant have gone unanswered.
Since 2012, Bun Hoaw’s family company ING Holdings has been pumping sand into the lakes. A new highway named after Prime Minister Hun Sen is nearly finished, along with residential precincts and a new campus for one of the most expensive private schools in the country.
Government critic Sophal Ear describes the deal paving the way for ING City as “yet another shady deal in the Kingdom of Wonder”.
“You always have to wonder how much was paid, or even to whom. It’s just shameless,” says Associate Professor Ear at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Many of the capital’s lakes have been filled in. The loss of Boeung Kak (Lake Kak) in the middle of Phnom Penh in 2010 triggered international headlines. The developer Shukaku, owned by another powerful Oknha, reportedly paid $106 million for a 99-year lease on the wetlands that covered 133 hectares.
Thousands of residents were evicted from their homes with inadequate or no compensation. Many still seek a just outcome.
Little hope of compensation for lost homes, jobs
Pov is worried. The narrow spit of land on which she and her neighbours live doesn’t appear on the maps of ING City.
“The communities have not yet been delivered any clear information by the local authority or the company,” says urban rights advocate Ee Sarom.
“They are concerned they will not receive adequate, or any, compensation for the land that is being taken from them.”
Local officials say the residents will be treated fairly, but after scores of evictions across the country, the villagers are mistrustful.
But the city’s poor are not the only casualties of rampant development.
Phnom Penh was founded on a floodplain and low lying areas acted as a sponge in the rainy season harbouring flood waters. With so many lakes now gone, the city is frequently inundated by flash floods.
Government may expect international aid to fix problem
There’s also the city’s sewage.
At the same time as the torrent of fetid blackwater is increasing, the area of wetland that naturally filtered and purified the waste is drastically shrinking. It’s a catastrophic health and environmental mess — right in the Government’s own nest.
A multi-million-dollar conventional treatment plant has been recommended to the city, but authorities are crying poor, saying they lack the necessary financial resources.
Associate Professor Ear says it would be typical for the Cambodian Government to expect international aid dollars to fix a problem it has been hell-bent on creating.
“Donors should refuse to help,” he says, “it would just mean the Government avoids the costs of the harm it does. It’s a moral hazard.”
ING City contains plans for a 560-hectare reservoir which the company claims will help with flood-mitigation. However, the problem of the city’s sewage remains, and the people who currently make a living from it feel they are up the creek, without a paddle that can help them.
“I will stay working until they fill in the lake,” says Pov.
“Here, I can still earn enough to make a living, day by day … but after that, who knows?”