Saman Kosim, 60, is staring down $3,000 in damage to his boat’s hull, motor and roof after a collision with a sand barge on Sunday. He lost about 50 kg of rice, his mobile phone and his family’s cooking utensils, he says.
The boat, now sitting on the shore of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva peninsula, had its tail ripped off, and several planks on its hull are shredded.
Starting from nothing and gradually upgrading from smaller boats, it took him six years to save for this boat and another three for the motor, he says.
On Monday, the fisherman was hoping for a visit by officials from a sand-dredging company — that he couldn’t identify — to compensate him for the damage. He had spoken to a guard at a nearby construction site who had called up headquarters, and officials would come down to the shore where he lived, he said.
He explained the damage and necessary repairs: boards for the hull were to be shipped from Kratie, at $250 a piece, he said. The roof, underneath which he had lived with his wife and son, was now a pile of rubble, and would cost $300 to replace, he said. The motor was destroyed. He needed to replace tools and sundries.
According to Kosim, the collision happened around 11 a.m. Sunday, along the Tonle Sap between the Royal Palace on one shore and the Sokha Hotel on the other. He had been coming south from the bridge that crosses to the peninsula, and the sand barge — “it was a huge boat” — turned into the side of his boat, he said.
He was flung into the water while his wife and son clung on board. “I was in shock and didn’t have the power to swim. If people didn’t come to help, I would have died,” Kosim said.
About 30 fishing boats from the tip of Chroy Changva came to the family’s aid, carrying them back home.
Smey Ros, 23, said several fishing families had in the past had their nets — costing around $150 — torn up by the barges, and sometimes they received a canister of gasoline as compensation.
The fishers shine lights at night and wave shirts during the day to try to alert the barges going up and down the river. “Some avoid us. Others don’t,” Ros said. “Sometimes they almost crash into us.”
Kosim’s crash had been the first major collision, she said.
Commune police chief Chan Bunthoeun said he had not received any report about the crash.
On Monday, about a dozen barges could be seen on the river amid extensive dredging operations. Construction sites are being filled with sand across Phnom Penh and Kandal: In the north, Boeng Tamok, one of the capital’s last lakes, is being filled for a military base and several unknown developments by ruling party family members; straddling the Mekong in the center of the city, the Koh Norea and Akrei Khsat satellite cities are being built on landfill jutting into the river; and in the south, the major Boeng Tompun development is quickly being filled with sand.
From aboard ferries, both shipping traffic on the rivers and construction sites along the shores could be seen busy with activity.
Officials have frequently lauded the projects’ value for development. “The development potential is the greater [concern],” said Kandal governor Kong Sophorn in November. “There will be an impact on people’s minds at some point, but after they see the development they will feel happy and support it even more.”
“If they grow lemongrass and bananas, how much can they earn from it?” said Kandal provincial councilor Mao Phirun last month. “We turn it into an economic, tourism and commerce city and make our country developed.”
Ros, living on the tip of Chroy Changva in the shadow of the Sokha Hotel, said the 30 or so families moored there had been evicted alongside all of the capital’s floating families last month, had stayed away for two weeks where the fishing wasn’t as good and food harder to buy, and then returned.
They still faced daily pressure to leave, Ros said.
Kosim, who lost his boat on Sunday, is now living on a borrowed boat, cooking rice in a borrowed pot. He said he was disturbed by the collision, the evictions, the discrimination. He bristled at officials characterizing the fishing families as polluting. “They say we’re pissing, shitting in the river. What about the hotel? It all flows into the river the same.”
“We drink that water, we bathe in that water,” he said. “And brothers and sisters are blaming us saying we make the water dirty. In the morning we go looking for the fish, in the evening we sell the fish. That’s all.”
“No home, no house, only the boat,” Kosim said. “I’m upset.”