Thursday, 8 February 2007

Cambodian contrasts - or where does the waste go?

I've interviewed quite a few hotel managers here in Siem Reap and wondered: where does their water comes from? There is no proper water supply system here. Where does their waste water go? There is also no sewage system, and what do they do with their garbage? The water issue is a long story (and I'll tell you more about that in another blog). But today was all about garbage. What happens to all the waste made by 1.5 million tourists? "Well, it's picked up every day", I was told. But where does it go? "No idea!" General manager after general manager, from one star to five star hotels, always had the same answer: "We pay around $100 per month to the garbage collecting company MICC to pick it up, but we have not the faintest idea where they take it". Hmmmm... I tried getting an interview with MICC - but like with so many other authorities, it's always the same bureaucratic nightmare: "You need to send a fax with your official letterhead". Yeah right, how am I supposed to do that???

Anyway, one morning, as I was making my way to visit a conservation project in Angkor Wat I saw one of the green MICC trucks. I jumped out of the car and stopped the truck asking the startled workers where they were going. Like so often, they had no idea what I was talking about (even though I was using all the body language I could think of). But I soon surrounded by a crowd of amused Cambodians and someone managed to tell me "behind the new stadium". Thanks!

So today I thought I'd check out this dump. Rachel, a British volunteer with VSO and an environmental consultant whom I had met earlier, was also curious to learn more about it. And so off we went on her motorbike in search of the dump. First, no one knew where the new stadium was... each time we asked we were vaguely pointed in an eastern direction "two kilos, two kilos" (meaning: two kilometers) - Rachel speaking Khmer it was not a language problem this time.... But after backtracking a few times and quite a few "two kilos" we finally managed to find the new stadium (I had actually seen it as we arrived to Siem Reap the first time thinking "interesting, they're building an extravagant mosque")... I'm rambling... so here was the stadium, but still no dump in sight. "Follow the trucks" we were told and so we did, driving many kilos on a dirt track, inhaling tons of dust - and soon both looking like we'd been on the road for seven days... still no dump...

Just as we decided to give up and head back into town, we spotted a green "MICC" truck - stopping along the road and dropping off bags of garbage at various houses along the way. (My only guess is that those families were earning a meager income from recycling whatever was recycable in those bags). By the smell of it, we knew we were getting closer.

The dump was bad, though not as bad as I would have expected. And yet it was shocking to see people living just meters away and kids playing amongst the litter. A young woman with a sick two year old on her arm told us how miserable life is around here. There's no way you can cook clean food here, she said. Her house is infested with insects - flies everywhere. And yet, she adds, she cannot even complain, the land she and her family live on belongs to the MICC - the government sold it to the company (expropriation is not unusual in Cambodia). No wonder, the MICC was not keen for me to see this...

'd be curious to know where the thousands of dollars go that MICC is getting every month... A hotel pays an average of $100/month, a guesthouse $40/month, a normal household $10/month - simple mathematics and you multiply this times 91 hotels and more than 170 guesthouses (even leaving out the individuals) and you get more than $15.000 - a huge sum of money by Cambodian standards...

Back in Siem Reap, covered in dust, all sweaty in my dirty jeans and disgusting looking shoes - I rush to my next appointment: the "amansara" - Siem Reap's poshest and most expensive hotel (a night here costs around 800$).

The contrast couldn't have been bigger...


Anonymous 27 November 2007 at 05:24  


Can you tell me if there were any people foraging for recyclable materials at the Siem Reap dump? I have visited the dump in Phnom Penh and there were almost 1,000 waste pickers working and living near the site.

Thanks Cindy

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