One morning in early July, about a dozen bulldozers and excavators came to Msa Krong commune where Kong Heuv lives, about 50 kilometers outside Kampong Thom provincial town.
The machines had come to tear down more than 10 reservoirs local farmers had built to capture the receding waters of the swollen Tonel Sap lake.
“I was very disappointed with the destruction of my reservoir,” said the 67-year-old farmer, as he walked along the flattened dam one recent day.
“If I were rich, this would not be a problem,” he told VOA Khmer. “But I am still in debt due to the construction of the reservoir.”
The government has been tearing down these kinds of reservoirs since late June, under the new Tonle Sap Authority, which has a mandate to protect the flooded forests around the great lake.
There are about 1 million hectares of these forests around the lake; nearly 400,000 hectares have been destroyed already. Since 2002, villagers have been expanding their farmlands, while business owners have looked for other means to catch fish as the water recedes each year.
Kong Heuv said he spent about $5,500 two years ago to keep water for his rice paddies during the dry season.
“I don’t know how to deal with my debt now that I can’t work on the paddies I depend on,” he said.
Chan Yuttha, secretary general of the Tonle Sap Authority, said 35 of 239 reservoirs have now been destroyed across six provinces.
“And there will be no compensation for any loss of the reservoirs, because they were all built illegally,” he said.
Tri Horn, chief of Msa Krong commune, said the destruction of the reservoirs is good for the sustainability of the flooded forests. But, he acknowledged that the dismantling some of the small ones owned by poor farmers in his commune has caused problems for them.
“They borrowed the money from banks to build those reservoirs, so they are now in debt,” he said in an interview at this house. “Some almost want to commit suicide due to the debt.”
Most of the 9,000 people in his commune depend on farming, while a smaller number need the reservoirs for dry-season fishing, he said.
“In addition to keeping water for farming, the building of reservoirs is also meant to catch fish,” said Lim Kean Hor, Minister of Water Resources and head of the Tonle Sap Authority.
The reservoirs are especially problematic in Kampong Thom province, where they are built consecutively and impede the flow of the river, he said.
“So, all of the remaining reservoirs around the great lake will be dismantled to preserve the lake,” he said.