Many residents of Phnom Penh noted that during the ASEAN Summit hosted at the capital’s Sokha Hotel, the rubbish they were accustomed to seeing in the city was nowhere to be found, especially on the banks of the rivers, which seemed to have been carefully cleaned.

Of course, the waste did not just disappear on its own. This was partly the work of the River Ocean Cleanup (ROC) team, which spent a month cleaning up waste prior to the summit.

The organisation, founded in July 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, officially began operations in March, 2022 by collecting nearly 200 tonnes of garbage on the water and along the riverbanks.

“The environmental clean-up mission was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic until March. That was when our historic river cleanup mission in collaboration with Germany’s everwave began,” said Nou Sovann, executive director of ROC.

Germany’s everwave is a social enterprise that protects rivers and seas from plastic waste and promotes sustainable living to clean the aquatic environment for fish habitat. They offered the most technologically advanced boat from Germany with the capability to pick up garbage from the river along with drone scouts that can be used to spot accumulations of garbage.

The boat is called Moringa and was made by Landmarken. It was used to pick up the garbage with a metal net control system to bring the trash into the boat, according to Sovann.

More than 150 out of 200 tonnes of garbage were sent to the zero waste centre of the organisation over the last seven months and four such centres have already been built.

The garbage is categorized by type as recyclable waste in collaboration with local private companies and has been recycled as souvenirs or is being prepared for export to European countries for recycling into other items, according to Sovann.

Sovann said that starting from the Chaktomuk River, the ROC has ambitions to clean up the 480-km-long Mekong River, the more than 200-km-long Tonle Sap Riverb and the nearly 100-km-long Bassac River, but this will require more of the modern garbage collecting boats.

“The goal for our mission is to work with the government to make our rivers garbage-free in five years,” Sovann told The Post.

It was this large ambition to clean up Cambodia’s rivers that prompted everwave to cooperate by providing the garbage collection boat and technical teams.

“We liked the fact that ROC is a specialised, target-oriented local NGO that aims to address the waste problem in the rivers and ocean,” according to Jacqueline Plaster, project manager of German start-up everwave.

She said Sovann contacted everwave in August 2021 and asked if the social enterprise could help with the technologies necessary to clean the rivers in Cambodia.

“We started with an on-site-analysis in November 2021, where we analysed the river behaviour, operation sites, waste characteristics and so on. We directly felt that we have the same vision and together, especially with our strong cooperation with the government here, we can tackle this challenge together. Our joint vision: clean up the rivers of Cambodia, keep Cambodia beautiful,” said Plaster.

The German NGO is helping with the technology such as the garbage collection boat Moringa as well as capacity building for operating garbage boats, data management including drones, artificial intelligence and use of an NIR-spectrometer to recognize plastic types.

Plaster says her team both in Cambodia and working remotely from Germany and those providing financial support are all helping the project.

“So far, the project is mainly financed through everwave, supported by our sponsors Landmarken and Kühne+Nagel Germany, but to become sustainable in the long-run, we need local support. That is currently our main focus,” she says.

At the same time, Sovann said the garbage is not only on the surface of the water or on the banks of the river, but also appears to be resting on the riverbed, which requires techniques to extract the waste to fully clean the river.

Recently, ahead of the ASEAN Summit, the ROC launched a month-long clean-up campaign around the Sokha Hotel area, collecting nearly 40 tonnes of rubbish on the banks of the river and on the water in the Chroy Changvar area.

The executive director of ROC said that this effort was done in collaboration with Phnom Penh City Hall, the National Committee for Clean City Assessment (NCCA) and the Ministry of Environment to clean up the river ahead of the summit.

“It makes me proud to see how much we can achieve together. With our technologies, the ROC team and in collaboration with the NCCA, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Environment, municipalities and all relevant stakeholders,” Plaster – who first visited Cambodia in 2016 – told The Post.

She says that so far they have collected over 150 tonnes of rubbish from the rivers and riverbanks in Phnom Penh in less than one year and they have built up a sorting facility and created over 70 jobs in the formal and informal sectors through that work, and that’s with just one boat in operation since March.

“After working together with ROC for one year now, we have a very strong partnership and grew together as a huge team from two organisations, two countries, in close cooperation with the government, waste management companies and in cooperation and exchange with many other relevant stakeholders,” she said.

Sovann said that in eight months the team has cleaned up 60 per cent of the river in Phnom Penh, but rubbish still floats from upstream, sinks down and rises again or is newly deposited into the water, requiring repeat missions.

“We do not dare to guarantee what percentage we can do, but in terms of distance and time, we’ve been able to achieve 60 per cent for the rivers in Phnom Penh,” he said.

Sovann also requested the participation of the public and donations from private companies to provide funds to the river clean-up fund to buy more of the modern garbage boats, because one boat is not enough to clean all of Cambodia’s waterways.

“At this stage, we have shown we have the ability and knowledge as well as the human resources to achieve our ambition to clean up Cambodia’s rivers in five years. But what is still lacking is equipment, especially modern technology like boats. No big organisation like the UN is going to come and help us in this environmental clean-up work, it is up to Cambodians to help each other,” Sovann said.

Plaster said that with the recent MoU signed between the Ministry of Tourism, ROC and everwave, the mission will be expanded across the country through 2027 in order to tackle plastic pollution in the waters of Cambodia.