This time last year, villagers were pulling nets full of fish and piles of morning glory from the Chroy Changva wetlands. Children sought respite from the searing heat in the shallows and birds balancing on lily pads plucked bugs from the air.
Today, those wetlands have disappeared, replaced by a barren desert.
Since the turn of the year, barges have dredged hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of sand from the Mekong riverbed, transporting it up the Tonle Sap and pumping it into a 387-hectare space on Chroy Changva. This peninsula juts out of the mainland and into the confluence of the two rivers in Phnom Penh.
That space, which the government turned over to the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (OCIC) in 2011 on a 99-year lease for an undisclosed sum, is to become a $3 billion real estate project, known as “Chroy Changva City, City of the Future.”
The “City of the Future,” with a planned 60-hectare public park and 40-hectare sporting complex, will rival OCIC’s other mega projects, such as the Canadia Tower and Koh Pich island.
But hundreds of families who live along the eastern bank of the Tonle Sap, in Chroy Changva commune, are watching their homes and land slip away.
“The house just sank lower and lower and then on March 6, the land gave way and the house fell apart,” said Doeumkor deputy village chief Un Loeun, 59, as he looked over the muddy void where his home once stood.
More than a dozen pumps—some the size of a car—have been installed on the river’s edge,
where they chug sand from the barges, through the lives of riverbank dwellers, and onto OCIC’s land.
The constant, ground-shaking rattle of the pumps, combined with rushing water that is expelled from the dredged sand and former wetland, has softened the earth at the edge of the Tonle Sap river. It has caused numerous mini-landslides.
“Ever since the pumps started in January, the land has been shaking and falling into the river,” said Mey Kakkada, a 34-year-old motorcycle-taxi driver, as he stood over a freshly fallen slab of land at the back of his home.
“Already about five meters has fallen into the water this year,” he said. “How long until my house is gone?”
Touch Samnang, project manager for OCIC, which has not been granted permission to start building on the landfill, said complaints from locals were not his problem.
“In our contract, City Hall is responsible for compensation,” Mr. Samnang said. “If you want to know anything about the contract, you should ask City Hall.”
Phnom Penh deputy governor Chreang Sophan visited Doeumkor village on Tuesday to inspect the site. Contacted Thursday, he said City Hall had no responsibility to the aggrieved families, who live on a narrow strip between the development and the river.
“Those people living on the riverbank are not on the land of the development, so they have no dispute,” Mr. Sophan said.
“If the land is falling in the river, it is not our problem—erosion is natural,” he added when asked about the destruction.
At the site of one of the sand pumps, Sum Koma Vutha, a 40-year-old national police officer, swung peacefully on a hammock, ignoring the racket.
“This is my home, and I don’t agree with the government, but I am paid $300 a month to allow the pump on my land,” Mr. Koma Vutha said.
“I don’t want to be involved but they will put it here no matter what I say,” Mr. Koma Vutha continued. “I am not powerful enough to stop them. I will just take the money.”
Villagers, including Mr. Koma Vutha, spoke, with little hope, of Mr. Sophan’s visit to Chroy Changva. The visit by the city’s deputy governor followed a report in Kampuchea Thmey, a local newspaper, that 22 families had complained to village authorities about the mini-landslides.
When questioned, Doeumkor village chief Chea Sam On initially said she had received no complaints. But when shown the newspaper report on the 22 families, she suddenly remembered.
“Yes…22 families have complained, and we passed the complaints to the higher authority,” Ms. Sam On said.
She made her own attempt, she said, to investigate the destructive effect the sand pumping was having on her village.
“All the people who work on the barges and the pumps are Vietnamese,” she said. “I have been to talk to them, but when I ask them questions they cannot answer because they only speak Vietnamese.”
About 500 meters from the village chief’s house, Sophea Nit, a 26-year-old from Kompong Chhnang province, was operating one of the sand pumps.
“Before we can bring the pump, we must first get approval from local authorities,” Mr. Nit said. “From this pump, we are pumping about 2,000 cubic meters of sand per day.”
City Hall in October 2013 outlawed sand dredging in Phnom Penh, citing an overabundance of unlicensed firms dredging around the rivers’ confluence.
In February, three people died when a family home collapsed into the river in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district, about 20 km south of the city.
At the time, Marc Goichot, chief of sustainable hydropower and riverbank management for the World Wildlife Fund Greater Mekong Region, said that riverbank erosion was a direct result of unsustainable dredging that posed a serious risk to infrastructure.
Contacted Tuesday, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that any dredging taking place was out of his jurisdiction.
“I will not allow dredging in the city,” Mr. Dimache said. “All dredging is happening in Kandal province and the barges must have permission.”
Kandal governor Phay Bunchhoeun said that while dredging had been stamped out in parts of the river, some companies were being allowed to continue.
“The sand dredging is still happening because a few companies still have a contract,” Mr. Bunchhoeun said, adding that he could not remember the names of those companies.
For Mr. Loeun, who has been deputy chief of Doeumkor village since 1985, determining who is to blame for the dredging and pumping will make no difference.
“We can make the complaints, but we know that nobody listens to us,” Mr. Loeun said. “We are just the small people.”
More important, he explained, was salvaging what he could from the ruins of his fallen home and piecing together a timber shack next door for his extended family.
“There are nine of us living there now,” he said as he nodded toward the makeshift lodging. “But I am afraid that the house could fall in the river any day.”