Villagers living by Tamouk lake are tired of rancid sewage bubbles wafting into their homes.
Chea Reaksmey could not understand what was wrong with her young son, who kept coughing and coughing despite being given medication from a local pharmacy.
After months of confusion, one of the doctors she visited finally asked where she lives and her answer – alongside Tamouk lake in Prek Pnov district – solved the riddle.
“Doctors told me that one of my sons has a respiratory tract infection; that’s why he is always coughing and has sore throat,” says Ms Reaksmey. “I’m so worried about him, and I’m also pregnant.”
Ms Reaksmey says that the constant pollution wafting into her home from the lake in the form of foam lines due to sewage discharge is to blame.
“My family’s health is not good because I have young children and they’re easily affected by the pollution,” she says. “The doctor told me that my children are exposed to a bad environment.”
Ms Reaksmey says the government must take action to reduce the amount of odour pollution in her community.
“We really need authorities to take action because everyone living here is desperate for a solution to all this pollution,” she says.
The rancid pollution looks like soap bubbles rising from the lake due to water pipes situated underneath discharging sewage from the capital.
It’s not unnatural for foam lines to occur, but two pumping stations operating on the lake make the pollution unbearable.
Natural foam lines are non-toxic, but the wastewater being pumped into the lake has led to undesirable effects and residents living around the lake area have had enough.
Chea Khern, an 86-year-old resident living right next to the lake, says the horrid bubbles are inescapable.
“A few days ago, there were many bubbles carried by the wind from the lake onto my land,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was so I ran inside, but it followed me in.”
Mr Khern says the government has an obligation to reduce the pollution terrorizing the community.
“I really want authorities to control the foam because it smells like shit,” Mr Khern says.
Lake Tamok is a major reservoir for Phnom Penh and its 1.5 million inhabitants.
Located in Prek Pnov district, the 3,239-hectare lake sits in preserved land revered for its natural scenery.The lake received its preserved status from a government sub-decree issued in 2016.
However, with the construction of a water treatment facility that covers about 500-hectares, the lake is now being used to discharge sewage and flood water from Phnom Penh.
First operated in 2010, the Kop Srov water treatment facility on the lake became the 14th pumping station in Phnom Penh.
The facility has two pumping stations, Kob Srov and Sampov, and residents living in the area blame the pumping stations for the pollution.
At a garage nearby the lake, Sann Yonn says that he has been working as a security guard there for almost six months. Mr Yonn says that the rancid smell from the foam is ubiquitous.
“I have been working here for five months already, but I still can’t get used to the smell because it’s stinky. It smells like human waste,” he said. “Take a look at these trees and the grass around here, they’re almost dead because of the pollution.”
“Whenever a pumping station opens its water pipes, tiny bubbles form and get carried by wind,” he says.
Last month, the Public Works and Transport Ministry said that it was aware of odour pollution from the water treatment facility, noting that it will be upgraded to reduce pollution.
“The ministry has been building better facilities to reduce the smell coming out of Kob Srov and Sampov pumping stations,” it said. “Its construction will be complete in November.”
Chun Narith, an engineer tasked with studying the pollution by City Hall, says that he and his colleagues have yet to find a solution to the problem.
His team was originally tasked with surveying the lake prior to the building of the water treatment facility. Now they’re back in the community to figure out how to alleviate its unintended consequences.
“We’re under the supervision of City Hall. We are tasked with eliminating the bad foam line odour and at the same time making sure the pumps are working properly,” Mr Narith said. “We need the station to work properly so that it can sustain excess water from heavy rainfall.”
Heng Nareth, director-general of the Environment Ministry’s general department of environmental protection, says that a lack of financial backing is one of the reasons why foam lines appear.
“We have set a plan to submerge the pipes farther down by one metre to eliminate the foam lines,” he said. “The foam lines are from the station and it’s because the pipes are underwater. When the pipes discharge water, it creates sewage fumes. But now we have this new technique that could eliminate the smell.”
City Hall spokesman Met Meas Pheakdey says the building of the water processing facility has done wonders for the city’s sewage system.
However, a solution to the pollution problem at the lake could still be months away, he noted.
“We are taking action to resolve this problem – we still need to pump water and that’s been going well so far,” he says. “It will take a few months for us to resolve the issue.”
For 75-year-old Mao Rong, who first settled in the area in 1979, a solution cannot come quick enough as the pollution has not only affected villagers’ health, but the health of the lake.
It used to be a source of income for her community, she says, but the pollution has prevented villagers from making a living from the lake.
“Things have changed. People don’t fish and farm like they used to because they’re afraid of what’s in the water,” Ms Rong said. “There’s no fish and the water is too polluted for farming.”