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Tragic deaths in abandoned wells prompt awareness-raising drive

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A well in Prey Veng province’s Pea Reang district caused the deaths of a father and son in September. FN

Tragic deaths in abandoned wells prompt awareness-raising drive

After a number of recent tragic deaths, rural health and development officials are taking greater steps to warn rural communities on the dangers of wells.

Lon Say Teng, director of the Department of Rural Healthcare at the Ministry of Rural Development, told The Post that the lack of oxygen and build-up of dangerous gases in abandoned wells deeper than 4m presented an invisible killer.

“Deep open wells that have not been used for a long time, perhaps many months or even years, lack breathable air because leaves and garbage collect with mud at the bottom, absorbing the oxygen and causing methane to build up.

“If it is located in a shady area with trees blocking the sunlight, the lack of oxygen is even greater, and entering these wells without proper equipment and breathing apparatus can lead to death.

“These unused wells should often be filled in with soil to stop them being such threats to life,” Say Teng said.

Recently in Prey Veng province, a father and son died after suffocating in a 7m well in Angkeas Dey village, in Pea Reang district’s Prey Pnov commune, while removing a pump.

Prey Pnov commune police chief Ly Thy told The Post that Kloeng Pov, 52, and his son Pov Bunthoeun, 28, both farmers from Prey Konlong commune’s Prey Konlong village in Po Rieng district nearby, had died in the well.

Citing relatives of the men, Thy said that after disassembling the pump, they were preparing to take it home when they dropped tools in the well.

The younger man, Bunthoeun, climbed down into it to retrieve them before losing consciousness.

In an attempt to rescue his son, Pov ascended the well and also blacked out. Both men had died by the time farmers nearby had managed to mount a bid to save them.

“Large water hoses and bamboo pipes were used to get air into the well, with ropes set down to retrieve the men, but they were dead before the villagers got to them,” Thy said.

He added that a similar incident occurred in Angkeas Dey village in March last year, after two men were hired to deepen a well in fields that had dried up due to drought.

“In the scorching sun and with the well full of the rotting stench of the dead animals that had fallen in, they both suffocated to death just minutes after having begun digging,” Thy said.

Such tragedies were not isolated to Prey Veng province. Over the past few years, in Kratie, Siem Reap and Kampong Cham provinces, there have been nearly 10 deaths in abandoned wells and those that have been closed and fenced off, which are referred to as “dead”.

Hul Seingheng, director-general of the General Department of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation at the Ministry of Industry Science, Technology and Innovation said that such incidents were due to a lack of understanding of the dangers of wells.

“Tragic cases of suffocation in such wells have occurred several times in Cambodia, with a lack of awareness of the safety measures required for digging deep wells putting people in rural areas at risk of death,” he said.

He explained that there were many factors – geographical, topographical and environmental – to take into consideration when digging a well – with a lack of knowledge of them potentially fatal.

For example, digging wells in highland areas was generally more dangerous than in the lowlands as they needed to be a lot deeper to reach the water table, he said.

“The higher the area, the deeper the wells need to be dug and therefore the less oxygen there will be, so the risks are much higher.

“And this does not factor in the lack of expertise and experience of those carrying out the work,” Seingheng said.

The digging of wells more than 4m deep necessitated an adequate supply of air and the use of basic safety equipment such as props and shutters, ladders, ropes and air pipes, he added. Shifts needed to be rotated every 10 to 15 minutes to avoid the affects of working in low oxygen levels.

When deepening dried-up abandoned wells with thick mud at the bottom, an oxygen meter must be used to check there were sufficient levels before digging was undertaken.

Seingheng urged all relevant parties, especially local authorities, to educate people on the dangers inherent in well digging, and the procedures and equipment needed to ensure it was carried out safely and without risk to life.

Lok Vuthy, director of the Prey Veng provincial department of rural development, said he had sent officials to work with local authorities throughout the province – especially those in Pea Reang and Po Rieng districts – on education on the matter.

Local people were being instructed on taking greater precautions when digging wells in the fields and villages, and given professional guidelines to follow, including on the use of safety equipment such as air pipes, ladders, ropes and fans.

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