- Sand mining by politically connected companies has been blamed for the collapse of riverbanks along the Mekong and Bassac rivers in Cambodia.
- Affected residents say they’ve lost their homes and their livelihoods, based on fishing and tourism, as a result of the mining, but see no positive changes or hope for justice.
- The government, however, denies that the dredging is responsible for the erosion, with a senior official saying that it actually helps stabilize the riverbanks — a claim that scientists say is “a myth.”
- This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network where Gerald Flynn is a fellow.
ROKA KOANG, Cambodia — Some 45 kilometers, or 28 miles, up the Mekong River from Phnom Penh, Voi Thy sat and watched as 12 boats pumped sand from the riverbed. Another 11 boats, weighed low by their quarry of freshly mined sand, were making the glacial journey past her home in Roka Koang commune, Kandal province, to the capital.
In late June, 43-year-old Thy was slicing up bottle gourds outside her house, propped up by makeshift wooden stilts that descended down into the collapsed banks of the Mekong.
Each year, she said, the riverbank erosion gets worse. Two large collapses during Cambodia’s rainy season in May and June 2021 saw Thy move her house further from the river. But a more recent collapse in November 2021 forced her to remove a part of her house that was left hanging precariously over the water’s edge.
“I was so scared we’d lose it all, it’s been disappearing, piece by piece, since the sand mining began,” Thy said.
“Another 20 families left after the big collapse in November . Those who stay do because they have no other option,” she said.
Thy has moved her house repeatedly since 2016 to keep the river at bay, a short time after Cambodia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy began auctioning off sand mining licenses for sections of the Mekong River in Roka Koang in mid-2015.
Since then, sand mining in Roka Koang and more broadly across the Mekong and one of its offshoots, the Bassac River, has become a multimillion-dollar business captained by Cambodia’s elite, many of whom enjoy close political ties to government regulators.
While some of the sand is exported to Vietnam, Cambodia’s sand mining industry is driven by a domestic construction boom, itself largely fueled by huge flows of investment from China.
The utility of river sand for construction stems from its coarse, angular nature, which makes it the perfect binding agent in concrete, cement and glass.
A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report from April 2022 suggested that, globally, the use of sand resources has tripled in the past 20 years, with up to 50 billion metric tons extracted each year. It said “immediate actions across all scales of governance are needed to avert a global crisis.” A study published in March warned that the global demand for sand in the construction sector alone could jump by 45% by 2060 if extraction continues unchecked.
It was the free-for-all nature of Cambodia’s sand mining industry from 2011 to 2016 that allowed for major discrepancies in reported sales and purchases between Cambodia and Singapore. This led the Cambodian government to ban sand exports in 2017, before repealing the ban in 2020 — although data from COMTRADE, the U.N. trade statistics database, suggest exports continued throughout 2019 and point to more discrepancies in the reported 2020 exports.
At present, Cambodia has 49 active sand mining licenses spanning 2,320 hectares (5,730 hectares) of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. In 2020, the ministry reported that 11.7 million cubic meters (413 million cubic feet) of sand were extracted, followed by 11.5 million m3 (406 million ft3) in 2021. The first six months of 2022 have already seen 6.1 million m3 (215 million ft3) of sand mined from the two rivers.
Mining the Mekong for sand has led to rapid urbanization, but it has also been tied to increased riverbank erosion and a spate of collapses that have claimed homes and lives. This phenomenon has been reported across Cambodia and Vietnam, where sand mining has also become more prevalent. Although the Cambodian government maintains that collapses are natural, residents of Roka Koang insist they are losing land to the sand mining industry.
Eight residents from different parts of Roka Koang told Mongabay that while the riverbank had long suffered from erosion, with some accounts dating back to the 1980s, it had always been manageable at 1-2 meters (3.3-6.6 feet) of land lost per year. In 2020, by contrast, residents reported a 200-m (656-ft) collapse.
The most recent collapse in November 2021 saw large sections of the road running parallel to the river crumble into the water, along with parts of people’s homes — a phenomenon the community has become gravely attuned to, but has no escape from.
“Who will buy my land?” Thy said. “There’s no relocation plan for us, because this is state-public land. We cannot afford to leave, but they tell us we can’t rebuild our homes.”
Thy said her family would leave, if only they had the money, but sand mining has destroyed the fish habitats and with it, the community’s livelihood. This, Thy said, meant the community is unable to move somewhere safer or to address the damage done to their houses as the land ebbs away into the Mekong.
With three sand mining licenses currently active on the section of river that runs through the relatively small commune of Roka Koang, the area has become emblematic of the myriad problems that residents and researchers alike say is linked to excessive sand mining.
As incomes dry up along the crumbling banks of the Mekong in Roka Koang, the government has called into question residents’ right to live in the area. Local officials are using both the riverbank collapses and the subsequent repairs as justification for dismantling houses.
Sitting outside the patchwork of corrugated iron, wood beams and sheets of tarp that remained of his home, Samnang, who requested an alias for fear of retribution from local authorities, has lived in Roka Koang for more than 10 years and said he firmly believes sand mining is the cause of his problems.
“We can see the reason why our land and homes are collapsing into the river: it is the sand mining,” Samnang said. “We’re always repairing our houses, but the government has been repairing the riverbank for almost a year now and the protection it offers is only partial.”
In the process of repairing the riverbank, an excavator accidentally tore through a part of Samnang’s house that hadn’t been claimed by the river, rendering the abode defenseless against Cambodia’s rain and destroying all of Samnang’s kitchen.
They gave him the equivalent of $50 for repairs, “but the site manager told me I can’t rebuild my house — I have to wait until the riverbank defenses are complete,” Samnang added. “There’s no relocation plan, so we must stay here in this broken house. Soon the river will become the ocean, they’ll take all the sand.”
That sentiment, that sand dredging has exacerbated the riverbank erosion and fueled the recent increase in severe collapses, is shared widely among Roka Koang residents. But local authorities continue to deny there is any connection between the two. Several locals suggested the Roka Koang commune chief, who was unavailable for comment in June, was benefiting from not speaking out against the suspected cause of the erosion.
Regardless of the cause, there is little hope among residents that government intervention will extend beyond temporary repairs and eventual eviction.
The community worries that with this year’s dry season, the Mekong’s water levels will recede from the banks and pull down the newly installed riverbank reinforcements, which currently consist of geotextile bags — notably filled with sand mined from the river — and cages full of rocks stacked 800 m (half a mile) along the river, standing 9 m (30 ft) high and some 8 m (26 ft) back from the water.
Reinforcing the riverbank is 42-year-old Vinh Sothy, who manages a workforce of Roka Koang residents under the technical guidance of the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology. He explained the dimensions of the defenses, noting that each cage “trap” measures 1 m3 (35 ft3) and that they needed 800 in total, but echoed the government’s claims, saying the repairs weren’t needed due to sand mining.
“The riverbank collapsed due to the river’s flow. There was an island of sand that kept growing in the middle of the river, pushing the water toward this bank,” Sothy said, gesturing to the western side of the Mekong. “When they pump sand from the river, it will get the river to flow in a way that won’t affect the community here.”
He added the riverbank had been collapsing for the past 20 years, but conceded that in the last five to 10 years, the problem had grown in magnitude. That was the same time, he added, that the Ministry of Mines and Energy took over managing Cambodia’s sand mining operations from the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology — a move reportedly aimed at clearing the backlog of sand dredging license applications being held up by hydrological studies.
“I don’t have the knowledge,” Sothy said. “If the middle of the river becomes deeper, then maybe sand and soil from the riverbanks will fall in to replace it, but my understanding is that the sand mining happens in the middle of the river to let bigger boats move through the river.”
Government narrative ‘a myth’
In an interview in late July, Ung Dipola, director-general of the Department of Mineral Resources within the Ministry of Mines and Energy, defended the decision to continue mining the Mekong for sand.
“We love our country, we love and we care for our people, just let me know if you know any development [that goes ahead] without touching just a little bit the environment or social,” Dipola told Mongabay, pointing to the need for a balance between development and environmental protection. “For the sand, it is the same, but until now, we only give around 4% of the river to be dredged to develop our country.”
The Mekong, Dipola said, flows roughly 500 km (310 mi) through Cambodia with an average width of 1 km (0.6 mi), giving it a surface area of roughly 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres). The much smaller Bassac River travels just 85 km (53 mi) through Cambodia and has an average width of 300 m (990 ft), rendering its total surface area at around 2,300 hectares (5,700 acres) nationally.
Six companies have licenses to mine on the Bassac, while the other 43 are on the Mekong, and collectively they span 2,320 hectares — slightly more than 4% of the rivers’ total surface area.
When questioned on the impact of the three sand mining licenses in Roka Koang, Dipola said the river was “too powerful and fast-flowing” on the west side and that by dredging sand from the middle of the river, more erosion could be stopped.
But academics have long warned that all available research points to an unsustainable rate of extraction from the Mekong and noted that the government’s narrative lacks evidence.
“The argument that it might help in this river is a myth,” Chris Hackney at the University of Newcastle’s School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, and Julian Leyland and Steve Darby, both at the University of Southampton, wrote in an email.
For years, Hackney, Leyland and Darby have researched the impact of sand mining on the Mekong, and in 2020 published a peer-reviewed study in Nature that linked excessive sand mining to riverbank instability.
Hackney also published research in mid-2021 that suggested the rate of extraction on the Mekong was exceeding the rate of natural replenishment by almost five times in 2018, while low flows on the river in 2019 and 2020 reduced the natural supply of sand supplied to the Mekong Basin. Yet the rate of extraction continued to grow, outpacing natural replenishment by a factor of 16 in 2020.
When presented with this data, Dipola disagreed that this would cause problems for the river, saying, “We don’t want the sand to fill back in, because we want the waterway, because we want the flow of the water to change direction, so for us, we pump it and we don’t want the sand [to come] back.”
But the U.K. academics said this approach would leave no sand left to mine, while drastically altering the ecology of the river. They noted that smaller rivers could be steered by dredging, but when applied to a rive the size of the Mekong, the effect “is modest at best.”
Using a multibeam echo sounder, a device that maps riverbeds using sonar, on their last trip to Cambodia in May, Leyland and Darby uncovered locations of intense sand mining activity, where extraction scars routinely measured 5 m (16 ft) deep and a single sand pumping barge had taken roughly 9,450 m3 (333,700 ft3) over the course of a day.
Hackney, Leyland and Darby explained that sand mining lowers the Mekong’s riverbed, undercutting the riverbank’s toe, where the riverbank and riverbed intersect. This destabilizes the slope of the banks, contributing in turn to the collapses that have ravaged Roka Koang.
“Moreover, if we accept the sand miners’ argument — if the mining is supposed to be steering flow away from these banks that have failed, it’s evidently not working is it?” they wrote.
The U.K. academics went on to detail the scale of the threat that sand mining poses to Cambodia’s delicate ecosystems, warning that the lowering of the Mekong’s riverbed through dredging will mean more water is required for the Tonle Sap River to make its annual reversal of flow — a unique phenomenon that sustains the Tonle Sap lake, one of the world’s most productive fisheries.
“This will have major consequences for the volume of water in the lake and the timing of mass migrations of fish and other species to and from the lake breeding grounds,” they wrote, adding that, when viewed in the context of climate change, deforestation and hydropower capacity expansion on the Mekong, sand mining contributes to “a bit of a perfect storm.”
“We would argue that sand mining is having as big, if not a bigger impact on the delta and Cambodian reaches. It’s been shown to be the biggest driver of saline intrusion in the delta, and resulting in enhanced bank erosion more so than hydropower,” they wrote. “So, whilst climate change might alter the magnitude and variability of river discharge and sediment loads … it is the combination of all three that is potentially hugely damaging for the region.”
Despite the mounting evidence pointing to the contrary, Dipola, the ministry of mines official, continued to deny that sand mining plays a role in riverbank erosion.
On Aug. 10, he featured in a press conference held by the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit and suggested that riverbank instability could be linked to sand mining operations that don’t follow government guidelines.
However, a clip from the two-and-a-half-hour press conference that focused on Dipola’s denials was shared widely on Facebook, with many Cambodian netizens ridiculing the official trying to play down the consequences of sand mining on the Mekong’s riverbanks.
During the televised press conference, Dipola spoke of studies conducted by the government, echoing the arguments he offered when interviewed by Mongabay in July.
“Before giving the license, the company should get an agreement from the Ministry of Environment, so they need to do an environmental impact assessment,” he said in July. “If the Ministry of Environment finds out the area [would] create more danger [by giving] the license, they will not allow it and the Ministry of Mines and Energy will not allow it too.”
Dipola declined to share the findings of these assessments, saying they were for internal use only. Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Powerful interests shaping Roka Koang
While the government is unwilling to share the findings of these studies, the history of some of the companies operating in Roka Koang and their connections to high-ranking officials suggest that the pursuit of profits may be trumping concerns over environmental protection.
Global Green Energy Development, one of the three companies operating in Roka Koang, was until last year headed by Try Dalin, daughter of notorious timber baron Try Pheap, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in December 2019 in relation to the well-documented corruption that fueled his massive illegal logging operations.
Dalin and her two brothers, Try Daphors and Try Dalux — who, like his father, has been granted the honorific title of Oknha for his donations to the ruling party — appear to have handed the reins of the company over to one Hann Sinath in December 2021, according to Ministry of Commerce records. The records also show that, the same year, Sinath took over as director of Try Palace Resort and also shares a registered address with Daphors, suggesting he could be acting as a front for the Try family.
Try Pheap has served as an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and has long enjoyed close ties to the military and other government officials who enabled his stranglehold on Cambodia’s illegal timber cartel. Pheap has since branched out from logging, developing ports, special economic zones and luxury resorts, as well as entering the sand mining business.
Environmental destruction is a common feature of his business empire. Despite this well-documented fact, the Ministry of Mines and Energy saw fit to grant Global Green a license to export sand from Roka Koang in January.
Another sand mining company dredging the Mekong at Roka Koang is Jin Ling Construction, which appears linked to Prince Group, one of Cambodia’s largest conglomerates. Prince Group is chaired by Chinese-born Chen Zhi, who became a Cambodian citizen in 2014 and in 2020 was granted the title of Oknha as well as being made an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The connection stems from Jin Ling’s chairman, Pang Weizhi, who is also listed as a director at Tian Xu International Technology alongside Chen Bo, a man listed 53 times in connection to businesses operating in Cambodia, but mostly in the capacity of director at various companies belonging to Prince Group.
The email address that Pang Weizhi has listed on Ministry of Commerce records for Jin Ling Construction matches that of a Pang Visal. Similarly, the physical address Pang Weizhi’s Jin Ling Construction is registered to is shared by other companies operated by Pang Visal, who has directed multiple businesses with Chen Bo.
Ministry of Commerce records for Cambodian First Unite Construction Group list Pang Visal as the sole director, but show the company registered at Chen Bo’s home address. The same records also list Chen Bo as the only director of First Aquatic Industrial, but Pang Visal’s email address is listed as the official contact detail and the company is registered to the same Kandal province address as two of Chen Zhi’s Prince Group businesses.
Prince Group was recently tied to hotels where Chinese scam gangs are believed to be engaged in human trafficking, debt slavery and digital fraud. The company’s environmental record is also telling, with local media reporting that Canopy Sands Development, another company owned by Chen Zhi, had filled in 400 hectares (990 acres) of bay in Preah Sihanouk province with sand without conducting an environmental impact assessment.
The third company awarded a license to mind sand in Roka Koang is Sophearoth Aphivath, whose director since its incorporation in 2016 has been Meas Sophearoth, daughter of former Royal Cambodian Armed Forces commander-in-chief General Meas Sophea.
Dipola himself has an indirect connection with Sophearoth Aphivath. The ministry of mines official is married to Seng Pisey, who has directed a company with Sophearoth since 2013.
Seng Pisey also sits on the board of a company that is co-directed by the mother-in-law of Hun Manet, Hun Sun’s eldest son and the current commander of the armed forces after taking over from Gen. Sophea.
Seng Pisey’s brothers, Dipola’s brothers-in-law, also appear connected to Sophearoth’s businesses and family. Seng Pisey’s brother Seng Piseth has directed a construction company with Sophearoth since 2014, and her other brother, Brigadier General Seng Pitou, is married to Sophearoth and served as a former assistant to his father-in-law, Gen. Sophea.
Dipola and his wife directed at least three companies together prior to Dipola becoming deputy director of the ministry in 2014. When asked in July about the connection between his wife’s business partner of at least nine years and other familial ties to the industry he oversees, Dipola initially denied having any knowledge and would only confirm that he had worked with his wife.
In August, Dipola responded to multiple requests for comment on the matter, saying “There is no law specify[ing] that a wife of [a] government official cannot do business or be in business with someone else. The most important is that my wife is not involve[d] in mining sector.”
Dipola emphatically denied having any private connection to the sand mining industry and said that licenses are only issued in accordance with procedures rather than based on the status of applicants.
But the powerful set of owners behind the companies mining sand at Roka Koang are known to be able to skirt regulations with impunity, owing to their connections to some of Cambodia’s most powerful and influential individuals.
None of the companies operating in Roka Koang responded to questions sent by Mongabay.
Sand mining’s profits aren’t reaching Cambodian communities
Cambodia’s elite have long been accused of abusing their power, but for the residents of Roka Koang, this unchecked power has enabled sand mining operations to erase their livelihoods and destabilize the land they live on while simultaneously rendering the possibility of seeking justice all but impossible.
Samnang, whose home was damaged following riverbank repairs in Roka Koang, remembers when catching fish and ferrying tourists to an island out in the river could sustain the whole community. But the fish and the island are both gone now, replaced instead by a fleet of sand-dredging boats, forcing residents to scavenge for snails instead.
“Nobody here has farmland,” he added. “We all rely solely on the river. The water is too deep now for catching snails, they have taken the sandbanks that we stood on, so we cannot work.”
Others in the village, like Hak Bopha, have abandoned their traditional way of life and have reluctantly joined the extractive economy by selling gravel, which, when mixed with sand mined from the rivers, can also be used for construction.
“Before the sand mining began, we could catch fish and then snails. Now, there’s nothing in the water except sand and gravel,” Bopha said.
She added that in lieu of fish and snails, she now buys gravel from collectors for up to $18/m3 (about 50 U.S. cents/ft3), which she can then sell on for around $25/m3 (70 cents/ft3). But her sales are irregular, and while some months she can sell 5 m3 (177 ft3), other months she sells nothing.
In the July interview, Dipola said that for every cubic meter of sand exported, the companies must pay $2 in royalties to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, along with $1.68 in export tax (about 6 cents/ft3 in royalties and 5 cents/ft3 in export tax). Companies mining sand for domestic use pay 70 cents/m3 (2 cents/ft3) in royalties, but both domestic and exporting sand mining companies need to pay into the ministry’s community fund: 5 and 10 cents/m3 (0.1 and 0.3 cents/ft3) respectively.
This fund goes toward helping communities with development and also riverbank defenses — but only if commune officials succeed in requesting funds from the ministry. Roka Koang commune, Dipola said, had received funds twice, in 2017 and 2022, in relation to riverbank repairs.
However, by Dipola’s own admission, few know about the fund and only 33 of the 69 projects that the fund has supported since 2016 have been completed.
As such, despite the millions of dollars dredged up from the beds of Cambodia’s rivers, local communities say they see no positive changes or any hope that they will see justice if they take on the sand mining industry.
“We’re too small to take on the companies, they’re powerful, they’re going to win,” said Thy of Roka Koang commune as she sliced up vegetables on the banks of the Mekong. “We can only watch as our land slips away.”
Samnang, who now works as a day laborer on construction sites that fuel the sand mining by his home, agreed that there was little to be done and even less hope for the community.
“Sand mining is only important for the sand miners, it’s of no use to us,” he said. “It only brings us pain, takes our livelihoods, destroys our riverbank, it’s nothing but negative impacts for us here.”
Banner image: Hak Bopha of Roka Koang commune watches out over the Mekong River where sand mining barges pass by. Copyright: Andy Ball/University of Southampton.
Photos supplied by the University of Southampton and Andy Ball as part of an ongoing collaboration to document the impacts of sand mining on the Mekong’s communities. The images are not to be republished without prior permission.
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