Hundreds of villagers in Kratie province were hospitalised and 13 died from poisoning first blamed on contaminated water and then methanol-laced rice wine; villagers here have another theory: chemicals from gold mining run-off.
Chetr Borei district, Kratie province – As conflicting reports continued to emerge this week in the wake of 13 people dying and more than 200 being hospitalised from poisoning, villagers here have started to doubt official statements from the government that first blamed water tainted with pesticides and then methanol-laced rice wine for the tragedy.
Sitting shirtless in the provincial referral hospital, Bunong indigenous villager Thik Vaing, 53, says that he, his wife and daughter were all hospitalised after being poisoned from drinking water that originated from the Prek Ter stream.
“My wife has died because of the poisoning,” he says, noting he and his daughter are recovering.
Mr Vaing says he believes that his family was poisoned by the stream water, not from drinking methanol-laced rice wine as the Ministry of Health said in the wake of the deaths and after officials initially blamed water tainted by pesticides.
Mr Vaing says he and other villagers now believe that the truth is being hidden: that the stream was poisoned by run-off from gold mining operations in the area being run by Indian and Chinese companies.
Phlel Chey, another Bunong indigenous villager from Chetr Borei district’s Thmey commune, says he and his son were hospitalised after consuming water from the stream.
Mr Chey, 54, says he thinks he was first poisoned by herbicides and pesticides inhaled as he drove through a forest near rubber and cassava plantations, where he noticed all the vegetation had been wiped out by the spraying of chemicals.
“But I also drank water from the stream which I think was tainted by run-off from gold mining operations in the area,” he says, noting that the gold mining operations are taking place in Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri provinces, flowing run-off into waterways in Kratie.
On Wednesday night, Mondulkiri Governor Svay Sam Eang said that 14 villagers in his province had also been hospitalised after drinking contaminated water.
However, officials have shot down the gold mining theory being discussed by villagers.
Pen Lina, deputy provincial governor of Ratanakkiri, says that officials from the provincial mines and energy department visited the area this week and determined that gold mining had no role to play in the tragedy.
“We arrived at gold mine digging areas, but none of the places were operating,” he says. “Those places stopped being operational about four or five years ago.”
The Ministry of Health yesterday issued a new statement, reiterating that villagers have been poisoned from drinking methanol-laced rice wine and also drinking water from the stream that had been contaminated with herbicides and pesticides.
“Cease using and drinking water from Prek Ter and O’koki streams,” the statement says. “Use clean water supplied by local authorities…and implement proper standards when using pesticides and herbicides to kill grass as instructed by relevant authorities in order to avoid the flowing of those poisons into rivers, canals, streams and lakes.”
The statement yesterday followed one on Tuesday that said lab tests on the stream water showed that it contained higher than normal levels of chemicals from the use of pesticides.
“Most of the people are sick because they drank bad rice wine and some drank tainted water from Prek Ter stream,” Health Minister Mam Bun Heng said in the statement.
The Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts had already issued its own statement on Monday, saying that lab tests showed the rice wine had a methanol level of 11.22 percent, way above the maximum allowable level of 0.15 percent.
The ministry added that the stream water had a chromium level of 173 micrograms per litre, while the maximum allowable level is just 50 micrograms per litre.
The water also had a nitrate level from seven to 23 milligrams per litre, while the maximum allowable level is just three milligrams per litre.
Sok Kirirath, director of the provincial mines and energy department, could not be reached for comment.
Most of the villagers’ homes near Prek Ter stream now sit empty, with many villagers still in hospital receiving treatment.
Khy Ruonh, 42, from Thmey commune, says that the pesticides and rice wine cannot be the true cause of the tragedy.
“I think that the water in Prek Ter stream had a chemical substance that flowed from gold mine digging areas,” he says.
About 51 villagers from two villages in Thmey commune have been poisoned. Thmey commune chief Mom Kham says he’s not sure where to lay the blame for the catastrophe.
“I don’t dare to comment on the cause of the poisoning because expert officials have been investigating to find the truth,” he says.
Phat Chhum, Sre Non village chief in Kantout commune, says he believes the statements issued by the government.
“We suspect that they were poisoned by the water from Prek Ter stream and methanol-laced rice wine,” he says.
Kroet Sran, 40, a pregnant Bunong indigenous woman, says that her family, including her husband and daughter, were treated for poisoning at the provincial hospital.
Ms Sran says her family did not consume any rice wine, but did consume water from the stream.
“Three members of my family, including me, were poisoned because we drank the water of Prek Ter stream,” she says, noting that she does not know why the water was contaminated.
Bunong indigenous villager Toek Thlok, 39, a security guard in Sre Non village, says that he, his wife and daughter were hospitalised on Saturday and just returned home.
Mr Thlok says that his family eats vegetables that he grows himself, so the poisoning could not have come from food. He suspects the poisoning was caused by water from the stream.
“Villagers suspected poisoning from the water of Prek Ter stream, so the authority banned all villagers from using water from that stream and distributed clean water to us,” Mr Thlok says.
Keang Hong, director of the Kratie provincial referral hospital, says that about 50 villagers are still being treated at the hospital. Mr Hong says most of the ill felt dizzy and had difficulty breathing.
“I think that our authorities cooperated well with each other to help the villagers in this case,” he says. “If they had not acted quickly and started supplying clean water, more could have died.”
Meanwhile, Chhneang Sovatha, director of the provincial health department, says that most of the villagers were poisoned by methanol. Some victims had difficulty breathing and blurred vision before dying, he adds.
“They are being treated carefully. Some are better now and have been allowed to return home while others still need more treatment,” he says.
Chea Sopheak, deputy prosecutor with Kratie Provincial Court, says he joined the working group that included mines and energy officials when it visited the area for an investigation.
“If we found a crime, we would have taken action according to the law,” he says. “But we did not find any crime.”
San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, says this is not the first time that people living in Kratie have been poisoned.
“The question is: ‘will they have to live in fear?’” he says. “They need to find a reasonable explanation for the people to be content.”