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Cambodia authorities and UN experts clash on Tompun-Choeung Ek wetlands development

Ben Sokhean Khmer Times Fri, February 26, 2021

Morning glory farmers row their boats along Boeng Choeung Ek lake yesterday. KT/Pann Rachana

PHNOM PENH – The Ministry of Environment and Phnom Penh City Hall have expressed strong support for the urban development project in the Tompun-Choeung Ek wetlands, amid concerns from United Nations human rights experts on its impact on the 1,000 families living in the area.

Tompun-Choeung Ek Satellite City Development Project is a mega-development in Phnom Penh, covering a total area of 2,572 hectares, of which 520 hectares are reservoirs in Meanchey, Dangkor and Chamkar Mon districts. It is also part of Kandal province’s Takhmao city.

ING Holdings, headed by tycoon Ing Bun Hoaw, is to undertake the new satellite city development, with the company having been given the entitlement to invest and develop the area in May 2006. The satellite city was to be divided into four areas, namely: commercial, industrial, residential and administrative.

In a recent joint letter by seven UN human rights experts sent to the government and ING Holdings, they expressed “serious concerns” on the impacts of the urban development project on the livelihoods, food, security and homes of the over 1,000 families living in the area.

The UN human rights experts include Balakrishnan Rajagopal, special rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; and Anita Ramasastry, chair-rapporteur of the working group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, who are also concerned about the irreparable damage to the wetlands’ ecosystem.

However, in their response through the Permanent Mission of Cambodia to the UN office in Geneva to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on February 18, released yesterday, the Ministry of Environment and City Hall defended the project development.

The Ministry of Environment said the environmental and social impact assessment report of the urban development project of ING Holdings was approved by the ministry on April 10, 2017, saying the actual size of the assessment which was approved is only 863 hectares out of the total area of 2,572 hectares in the 2035 Master Plan for the city development project of City Hall.

The ministry also questioned the figure of 1,000 families affected by the development project mentioned by the UN human rights experts, saying based on the study conducted by a consulting firm and the public consultation, the number was fewer than that.

“When was the figure released? Do the above-said 1,000 families carry legal land title deeds or illegally settle in the zone?” the ministry asked.

The UN human rights experts claimed that of the 1,000 households living in the area, more than half are reliant on the wetlands as a primary or secondary source of income.

“Fishing and aquatic agriculture are the most common forms of work performed on the wetlands. The direct risk of income loss because of the infilling of the wetlands area is a serious concern and the information received has suggested that no communities have received compensation or have been consulted on the wetlands infilling,” they said in the joint letter. “Many of the families living in the area are also indebted and use the wetlands area as a way to generate income to repay their debts.”

However, the Ministry of Environment said that for impact upon land and house, a joint committee from City Hall, Kandal provincial administration and ING Holdings has a settlement policy (exchange of land) for the affected families.

The UN human rights experts also said more than 1.5 million residents of Phnom Penh and Takhmao city were being placed at an increased risk of flooding due to the destruction of the wetlands, as well as wastewater pollution.

“As the wetlands are destroyed, the capacity of the wetlands to act as a natural wastewater treatment plant is reduced, exposing the communities living on and near the wetlands to more pollutants,” they said.

The ministry said the alleged pollution caused by the development project is not warranted because the remaining wetland area receives sewage water from residences from the surrounding area and Boeng Trabek pumping station.

A water treatment plant is to be constructed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to reduce the level of water pollution in the area, it added.

Additionally, City Hall said the comprehensive assessment of environmental and social impacts of the development project had been conducted since 2008, and approved by the Ministry of Environment in 2017.

City Hall said the project is not located in a natural protected area or a conservation area.

“Therefore, there is no cultural asset, historical building or ancient temple in the project zone, except two pagodas that have been preserved and conserved,” it said.

It added that there is no presence of rare wildlife and the plants and trees are of no economic value. Meanwhile, the experimental results have shown that the quality of these vegetables and fish contains a high level of “chemical toxins” in the lake water, which can be harmful to consumers’ health.

City Hall highlighted the benefits of the development project, saying it will generate more than $4 billion in national economic revenue over the next 20 years through an increase in property prices, property taxes, business tax and construction of physical infrastructure.

“It allocates plots of land for construction of public buildings with an area of 22.5 hectares, in which the Royal Government of Cambodia has already decided to hand over the land to a number of ministries and state institutions,” it added.

City Hall noted that more than 100,000 jobs are to be created during the operational phase and more than 11 million jobs during the construction phase from 2015 to 2035, including construction workers, skilled workers, mechanics, and technicians.

“This project will improve the beauty of the southern part of Phnom Penh, strengthen physical infrastructure and ease traffic flow through the construction of three highways,” it said.

In addition, in 2019, the government decided to preserve 181 hectares of Choeung Ek Lake basin, to retain the 190 hectares of the remaining area as state private land, and to authorise tycoon Leang Khun and tycoon Thay Chea Huot to develop the area in exchange for infrastructure construction and processing the resettlement for the occupants of the lake area.

In its conclusion, City Hall said Tompun-Choeung Ek Satellite City Development Project implements the decisions and principles of the government, relevant ministries and institutions, as well as coordination between the private sector and the sub-national administrations.

City Hall said the impacts and benefits of the project were well assessed and said there is no forced eviction while health and employment status is improved.

It added that the project does not affect food security and biodiversity and there is no loss of reservoir function and wastewater treatment.

However, the UN human rights experts urge that all necessary interim measures be taken to halt the alleged violations and prevent their re-occurrence.

SOURCE: Khmer Times, Cambodia Fri, February 26, 2021

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