Kampong Chhnang city, Kampong Chhnang province – Kim Heng only knows life on the water and her family of five has invested everything into their way of life here, where she owns a small floating home on the Tonle Sap river.
However, her way of life is under threat as authorities move to evict thousands of Vietnamese and Cham families living on the river, citing negative environmental impacts.
“If we live on dry land, we’d have to leave our boat. A thief can steal its battery and engine,” Ms Heng says. “We tried living on land once and a thief stole a few batteries from our boat. And another thing is that we are poor. We do not have the money to build a house and a toilet on dry land. We have to continue living on the water.”
“I still live on water because there’s a lot of fish here,” she adds. “Plus the authorities haven’t objected, so I’ll just continue to stay here until they ask us to move again.”
Floating houses make convenient homes for fishermen living along the river in Kampong Chhnang. With floating homes, ethnic Vietnamese fishermen are able to easily migrate from one fishing spot to another.
However, living on water also impacts the environment, and this negative aspect prompted provincial authorities to begin relocating a number of floating villages to dry land.
In early October, provincial authorities started to relocate about 2,000 ethnic Vietnamese nomads away from their home on the water.
As of early November, most of the villagers have yet to relocate to dry land. Instead, they simply migrated from their old location to a new location about three kilometres away.
Kampong Chhnang Governor Chhour Chandoeun says authorities have begun relocating Cham and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.
“A working team spent time to move those people so the work can be complete by the end of 2018,” Mr Chandoeun says. “No one will live on floating homes any more.”
He notes that a majority of the people living on water are immigrants from Vietnam. Mr Chandoeun says moving them away from the waters would mean that the environment becomes beautiful and hygienic.
Authorities say that a total of 2,299 Vietnamese and 2,188 Cham families living on boats must vacate the waters and move to one of six areas in Kampong Chhnang city, or Boribor, Kampong Tralach and Chol Kiri districts.
“As of November 5, we have relocated 100 percent of all floating homes,” says deputy provincial governor Sun Sovannarith. “But for those living along river banks – about 750 families – they will stay to serve in the tourism sector by helping feed fish and help us rehabilitate the river’s environment.”
Provincial authorities will also prepare water and electricity for everyone who has been relocated.
“We already have a working team working on this, we will just have to wait until the water recedes,” he adds. “We will prepare roads, water and electricity for them. We are now also preparing houses for them to prevent them from living on roads.”
But for Le Hreuh Hoeung, who sells clothes on a dock where her boat is parked on the Tonle Sap river, the move to land is a step backward.
The 48-year-old Vietnamese immigrant has lived alone in front of the Phsar Chhang market over the last two decades.
“I came to live here without having a floating home. I live on this small boat and own a small business. Now, I heard that Kampong Chhnang authorities are asking us to relocate to dry land, but it’s difficult to live there,” she says. “First there is no toilet. Second, there’s no clean water. Third, there’s no electricity. There’s water now, but it is not clean. If there’s no clean water, it means that we would have to eat drink and defecate in one place.”
She admits that living in the water impacts the environment, but she says that the majority of her village cannot afford to live on land. Ms Le says many of the villagers are fishermen or are hired to clean fish.
Ms Le says she doesn’t mind living on dry land as long as clean water, electricity, roads and safety are provided.
“We do not oppose them, but we need toilets, roads and electricity,” she says. “We would also like safety so we can keep our fishing equipment.”
Ham Vibol, a 36-year-old Kampong Chhnang city resident, says he supports moving people living on water to land in order to restore the environment and the water biodiversity.
“I think that it is good that the authorities are relocating people to the city, it’s so that the number of fish will increase,” Mr Vibol said. “In addition, the river now is smelly. So it’s good for our river to be cleaned just in time for March’s River Festival.”
“There used to be so much rubbish when the boat people were living on water. Their fishing activities also made the river muddy. They wash their clothes and dishes in the water, causing the river to smell bad – the environment was seriously affected,” he adds. “Now we don’t see that any more since they’ve been relocated.”
Rhona Smith, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, this week raised concerns over the evictions in a meeting with Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
Interior Ministry spokesman Phat Sophanith told reporters that Ms Smith expressed concerns over how authorities have been handling the evictions.
“She went to Kampong Chhnang and observed the situation there. Her concern is regarding human rights. She’s concerned that the relocation could affect the rights of the residents,” he told reporters.
Toth Kimsroy, provincial coordinator for the Minority Rights Organisation, says living on water has impacted the river’s environment as a whole and created disorder.
However, Mr Kimsroy is urging the authorities to reconsider where Vietnamese and Cham residents are being relocated to.
He notes that several locations such as Pean Nhor village, Svay Chrum commune and Rolea B’ier district are not compatible with their way of life.
“The authorities should resolve this issue and provide places for the residents along riversides,” Mr Kimsroy says. “Most of them are immigrants and they and some were born here. They depend on fishing and feeding fish. The authorities should consider this when dealing with them.”