Cambodian Villagers Dispute Government Findings, Blame Deaths on Polluted Water

Villagers in Cambodia's Kratie province today urged that authorities take action to clean a polluted river, disputing government findings that village deaths first blamed on contaminated water had been caused by drinking bootleg wine, sources in the country said.

In a statement Monday, Cambodia's Ministry of Health said that the 13 reported dead since Thursday had drunk rice wine containing methanol, while more than 200 others who reported falling ill had been sickened separately by drinking water polluted by animal waste and insecticides.

Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service, a resident of Kantuoth commune's Sre Norn village, one of two villages affected by the outbreak of illnesses and deaths, voiced concern that more will die if a solution to the problem is not quickly found.

People have left the village, and those who have died have had to be buried without a proper funeral, because no Buddhist priest will remain in the village to conduct the rituals, the villager, named Naim Yann, said.

There are gold mines upstream, and our water may be contaminated by the chemicals used at those sites, which are released into the water along with the rains, Naim Yann said, adding that the villagers who died were as young as 14 and as old as 73.

We have to use the water that we get from that river. We have no other source, he said.

Findings challenged

In a statement Monday, Cambodia's Ministry of Health said that 280 people from the affected villages, including 162 women and 69 children, had been examined, with 234�among them 116 women�taken to hospital.

Recorded symptoms including blurred vision and shortness of breath were consistent with the consumption of methanol often found in homemade rice wine, the Ministry statement said.

Writing on Monday on his Facebook page, Cambodian environmental expert Meach Mean questioned the government's findings, calling them inconsistent with reports from the affected villages that some of those who died had drunk only from the river.

What does wine have to do with a contaminated river? Meach Mean asked. How is it possible for people throughout an entire village to get sick by drinking wine at the same time?

Authorities should now look into the contents of the river, which has been the main source of water for the villagers for a long time, he said, adding that chemicals from pesticides or factories upstream could easily be the cause of the disaster.

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