Once a tourist attraction and home to thousands of Cambodians, Phnom Penh’s biggest lake is now having muddy sludge pumped into it by property developers. Residents are fighting back, but is it too late to save their homes?
Heng Mom grimly walks through her lakeside home, pointing out the parts which have suffered from flooding. More than two years of sand-pumping have gradually displaced most of the water from Boeung Kak – and the residents complain that it has frequently inundated their houses.
“Lots of us have had this problem, especially in the rainy season,” says Heng Mom. “We never used to have flooding before the company came.”
“The company” is Shukaku, an entity which does not have a listing in the local Yellow Pages, but is otherwise very well-connected. It is owned by a senator from the governing Cambodian People’s Party. His wife runs Pheapimex, which controls vast areas of land through government-granted concessions.
The authorities signed a 99-year lease with Shukaku in 2007, allowing it to develop Boeung Kak and the surrounding area. A year later, the company started pumping sand into the lake – and the long-time residents’ struggle began in earnest.
Boeung Kak had been a prime draw for tourists. They saw the lake as a perfect sunset spot – with backpackers particularly keen on reclining, beer in hand, on wooden platforms stretching out over the water.
Meanwhile, locals viewed Boeung Kak as the key to a better life, as they ran guesthouses, restaurants and shops catering for the foreign visitors.
Now the lake is little more than a puddle – and tourist traffic has slowed to a trickle, depriving business-owners of income.
Along with the other families on the east of Boeung Kak, Heng Mom says she has a legal right to be there. Many of them have called the lakeside home for decades – and under Cambodia’s land law, that should entitle them to full ownership of their properties.
The World Bank funded a land-titling project which was supposed to make the Boeung Kak residents’ status official, along with hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians. But it moved at a snail’s pace, before it was finally cancelled by the government two years ago.
Without land titles, the lakesiders were in a vulnerable position. Thousands of them left as their homes flooded, and the leafy vegetables they used to harvest for sale from the lake disappeared along with the water.
In a highly self-critical report earlier this year, the World Bank admitted that it had failed to protect the lakeside residents, and had broken many of its own regulations which were supposed to prevent forced evictions.
This admission of partial responsibility possibly explains why the bank has decided to take the unusual step of suspending its lending to Cambodia. The country’s international donors are usually reluctant to attach conditions to their aid.
The bank’s country director, Annette Dixon, issued a statement saying that: “Until an agreement is reached with the residents of Boeung Kak lake we do not expect to provide any new lending to Cambodia.”
The Cambodian authorities have reacted with little more than a shrug, perhaps mindful that billions of dollars of Chinese money is now pouring into the country, on top of hundreds of millions in aid from long-standing donors.
An official spokesman said that Cambodia “no longer appreciate[d]” World Bank loans.
Shukaku is pressing ahead with its plans to build high-end residential and commercial buildings on the filled-in lake, along with a Chinese partner.
At a ground-breaking ceremony in July, attended by the governor of Phnom Penh, a company official thanked residents who had “volunteered” to move from the area. He accused those who remained of “grabbing” state-owned land around the lake.
But it seems the authorities and the developers may be backing away from a scenario which had the potential to result in Cambodia’s biggest forced eviction for decades, involving as many as 10,000 people.
Phnom Penh City Hall has opened negotiations with the residents, offering them cash or apartments in the new developments.
It counts as a concession – but the residents are hoping for more. After spending decades building up businesses on the lake, they want any replacement housing to have ground-floor access so they can start new ventures.
“They’ve offered us $8,000 to give up our homes,” says Heng Mom, barely holding back tears. “But that isn’t nearly enough to buy something new – not around here. I just want to thank the World Bank for stopping their funding – and I hope that other donors will do the same.”