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Science & Environment

Sand Mining In Cambodia And Dams Upstream Threaten Mekong River

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Southeast Asia, the famed Mekong River is under threat from upstream dams built by China. Those dams are reducing the flow of water and sediment, but China's downstream neighbors share the blame. Michael Sullivan reports from Cambodia.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In the capital Phnom Penh, a construction boom is transforming the city. High rises are replacing the low-slung French colonial architecture, and sand from the Mekong sediment is used to make concrete that's key to that growth, says government mineral resources Director-General Yos Monirath.

YOS MONIRATH: (Through interpreter) The benefit from sand dredging is both direct and indirect. The sand used in the construction industry helps create jobs and grows the economy, and dredging the river helps make it wider and deeper for boat traffic.

SULLIVAN: The downside - in the sand miners' eagerness to extract the sand, not even the dead are safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINING BOAT RUMBLING)

SULLIVAN: That's a boat pumping sand into a barge on the Mekong just 10 yards away from shore in front of the Kdey Takoy temple complex. There's less of the complex than there used to be. Deputy head monk Bean Boren explains why.

BEAN BOREN: (Speaking Khmer).

SULLIVAN: He says the riverbank started sliding into the river while the boat was pumping sand, taking two of the temple's crypts and the remains inside with it.

BOREN: (Speaking Khmer).

SULLIVAN: The monk says he and a few others managed to pry open the crypts and drag the coffins out before they floated away. The abbot was very angry at the sand miners, he says, but the authorities refused to intervene.

HUN VANNAK: It's not modern Cambodia.

SULLIVAN: That's Hun Vannak (ph), an activist with Mother Nature Cambodia. He did five months in prison for protesting illegal sand mining.

VANNAK: Here in Cambodia, it's all about the money, the business, the benefit, not about environments or the people.

SULLIVAN: Because the sand miners, he says, work for companies linked to powerful tycoons with government connections. In theory, they file environmental impact statements and abide by the rules. In reality, critics say, the only rule is making money. Yos Monirath, the government spokesman, disputes this.

MONIRATH: (Through interpreter) We have our hotline for people to inform us of illegal sand dredging. I don't think those allegations are true. We have never received a complaint.

MOM MUT: (Speaking Khmer).

SULLIVAN: Mom Mut just laughs when she hears that. When the back of her house started sliding into the river, she tried calling the hotline, she says. Nobody answered, and the local authorities warned her to let it go. Here's why this matters.

MARC GOICHOT: We have lost, since 1994, 77% of the total sediment transported by the river, which is huge.

SULLIVAN: The World Wildlife Fund's Mekong program director Marc Goichot says the vast majority of that sediment loss has come from upstream damming by China, but the indiscriminate sand dredging in Cambodia and elsewhere has made things even worse.

GOICHOT: So the demand is great, and the extractions are already not sustainable because we are probably extracting somewhere between 60 and 80 million tons a year when the river today probably barely produces five.

SULLIVAN: And it's likely to produce even less as more dams are built and more construction takes place. That's bad news for the 20 million people who live in the Mekong Delta who depend on river sediment from seasonal flooding for growing crops, a river that also needs sediment to support the fish those people take from it, too. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Phnom Penh.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAREN O AND DANGER MOUSE SONG, "LUX PRIMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.