KAMPOT — The tourist town has expanded a sandy beach along its serene riverfront, but the wind carries whiffs of untreated sewage that is being discharged from between the mounds of sand.
At the River Park cafe, a sewage outlet lies right under a wooden deck and outdoor seating, and the stink is the most pungent there.
River Park’s owner declined to be named in this article, but backed what Sim Dara, a 30-year-old worker at the cafe, told reporters.
According to Dara, the wastewater comes straight from the city’s market and flows untreated into the river. Though that system itself is historical, until about two months ago the cafe had built its own piping to take the sewage out to the middle of the river, away from visitors.
But the city is in the midst of upgrades to the riverfront, as well as a $33-million, Asian Development Bank-funded project to build wastewater treatment and drainage — and local officials and the bank offered different understandings of the situation.
A city official said the cafe’s pipe system had been dismantled, and new concrete piping for the upgrade piled up on the riverside, but Kampot now needed to wait for the ADB to decide whether to extend funding from its original June 30 end date. The ADB, however, said the funding had already been extended until 2023, and the riverfront work was the state’s.
Phea Run, a 60-year-old from outside the city, sat along the riverside, around 100 meters from the River Park cafe, in late August.
“I’ve just come here for the first time, and it’s kind of a nice place here,” Run said. “But it’s a bit smelly. I don’t know where it’s from.”
Run’s friend made a call on her phone sitting on a bench nearby. “It’s just for a short break so I don’t mind,” Run said.
Dara, the cafe worker, said the riverside park was receiving upgrades, and in time should be pleasant again.
“Most of the customers are from other provinces. They like the restaurant if they haven’t entered the area before. But when they get in here, they will go upstairs or leave the restaurant,” he said.
Dara added that he didn’t feel well working amid the smell of sewage every day. “But I need the work. I have nowhere to go since it’s Covid, and it’s hard to find a new job,” he said.
ADB documents show the $33-million loan was approved and signed in 2015. The project encompasses extensive wastewater treatment and urban drainage works in Kampot town. It is slated to build 9.3 km of sewer lines, 5.5 km of stormwater drains, the refurbishment of 2.3 km of existing open drains, and a treatment plant with a capacity of 3,300 cubic meters a day.
A June update says a contract for the construction work was awarded in September 2019, and about 15 percent of that part of the project is complete after Covid-19, poor ground conditions and weather constraints caused delays. It also says the Finance Ministry requested a loan extension in January, and the ADB in May granted the extension through to the end of 2023.
Et Sarith, deputy city governor, said 70 percent of the sewer lines date back to French colonial times and were now too narrow. He added that sewage currently flows untreated to the river and sea, and impacts the environment and ecosystems.
“However, at this time, we cannot continue our work due to the rainy season,” he said. “This is a big deal because through cooperation with the ABD we have been fixing and moving a lot of materials like reconstruction of infrastructure. We know it can be a bad smell around there, but we will continue by ourselves [if necessary] — better than wait for the ADB to continue the project again.”
“Even though the ADB project finished a few months ago, we’re trying our best to finish the construction since we’ve already prepared pipes and filled sand along the river,” he said. “The city cannot provide a clear timeline yet.”
Sarith added that the city was working on improving the riverside park, and had expanded the beach near the main bridge.
Kampot provincial governor Cheav Tay said on Tuesday that he couldn’t give specifics about the plan for the sewage project because the plans kept changing.
“In 2019 there was a study for the project and it has proceeded step by step. But the ADB, [contracting] company and Ministry of Economy and Finance have not cooperated well. The provincial administration is only waiting for the achievement,” Tay said.
“In this 2021 we will continue the project, but I can’t tell you about it now since the project has kept going back and forth with the ADB,” he said, adding that he understood there was a reassessment going on that could take “six months to one year to finish.”
“We know wastewater is not good for the sea and river if we haven’t treated it first. We’ve had some errors of not going to plan. But I hope in the future the project will be done 100 percent. We won’t let it [stay] like this even without the ADB because 40 percent of the project is already done,” the governor said.
However, ADB country director Sunniya Durrani-Jamal said the funding was already extended and the project would be delivered.
“The Second Greater Mekong Subregion Corridor Towns Development Project has not stopped activity and works are still ongoing with the construction of the wastewater treatment plant, sewer and drainage network,” Durrani-Jamal said.
She added that upgrades along the riverside were being done by the government.
“[T]he site of the waste water treatment plant is not along the river front and ADB has no infrastructure activities along the river front, which, we understand, are being upgraded by the government,” Durrani-Jamal said. “The Second Greater Mekong Subregion Corridor Towns Development Project is not completed and all the planned infrastructure will be delivered.”
She added that the project extension catered for additional infrastructure support for Kampot, including a wastewater pre-treatment plant.
A Kampot province Finance Ministry official hung up on a reporter.
Hak Ly, a sandwich seller along the riverfront, said he had only returned to his home province in the past couple of weeks after two years at a factory in Sihanoukville, where rents were high, and living was getting harder.
He said Kampot was quiet with hardly any tourists around, and business was slow. But he said that to him, cleaning up the environment seemed the most pressing task for the city.
“There’s lots of trash on the beach,” Ly said. “When it rains heavily, it smells, and customers don’t want to come.”