Prime Minister Hun Sen has seemingly backtracked on his reported assurances that construction on the controversial Stung Cheay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province would not be allowed to start in the near future, as a letter written by the premier last month reveals that the project is ongoing.
In October, opposition leader Sam Rainsy told reporters that Hun Sen had assured him the project could be “postponed to the next term to let the next generation decide”.
But a five-page letter signed by Hun Sen on January 15 and obtained by the Post yesterday seems to indicate that the dam is still officially on the agenda, as studies necessary to green light construction are ongoing.
According to the letter – addressed to National Assembly Chairman Heng Samrin and written at the request of Te Chanmony, a CNRP lawmaker and secretary of the National Assembly’s Commission on Environment and Water Resources – social and environmental impact studies currently taking place will determine whether or not the dam will proceed.
“The government will weigh carefully between the two issues on the benefits and losses through research studies and precise evaluation,” the letter says.
When asked about contradictions with Hun Sen’s previous assurances, Rainsy said the prime minister “has apparently changed his mind”. He added that he would consider addressing the issue with the prime minister, “when I have the opportunity to do so”.
The opposition leader said he remained concerned about the dam going ahead, explaining that “the concerns of the people” show that the project should be “carefully considered”.
But in the letter, Hun Sen is keen to champion the potential benefits of the controversial dam and downplay its environmental impact. “The development of the hydropower project does not mean destroying the whole forest in the region, but rather, the hydropower will contribute to conservation and protecting the remaining forest,” the letter says.
According to Hun Sen, the dam will take up 9 per cent of the valley, and 91 per cent of the valley’s tree cover would be preserved.
“The government considers the Areng valley a great asset that must be developed and conserved,” the letter says. “Although with or without the hydroelectric project, turning the area into an ecotourism site is on the government’s agenda,” it adds.
But Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, founder of NGO Mother Nature, said that many of the claims were “beyond comical”.
The suggestion that just 9 per cent of the valley would be flooded, he said, was an “outright fallacy”.
“The valley measures around 20,500 hectares, and the reservoir plus sites would make use of way over 10,000 of those,” he explained.
Hun Sen’s letter also accuses Mother Nature and a few people who were “brought” into the valley from Phnom Penh of blocking the study in March of last year.
But Gonzalez-Davidson dismissed the accusation.
“That doesn’t mention that there were 100 or 200 community members there, and only about two Mother Nature staff,” he said.
He added that the letter “corroborates rumours we’ve been hearing” that the project is still under way, and called on the CNRP and the Environment Commission to do more to halt the project.
“So far, they’ve been doing definitely not enough to get the Areng dam cancelled, especially the Environment Commission,” he said. “They don’t have to block the roads . . . but they should definitely be doing a fact-finding operation, and they haven’t been doing that.”
Um Serey Vuth of Sawac Consultants, contracted to carry out the environmental impact assessment, said he was unsure when the next trip to the valley would take place. “We’ve mobilised many times already, but we cannot access it,” he said.
The dam is slated to be built by the Chinese engineering giant Sinohydro Group.
The local affiliate of Sinohydro has two of the country’s most influential tycoons on its board of directors, including CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin.
Gonzalez-Davidson said the companies contracted to carry out the assessments on the site were incapable of doing so independently. “They work for the government, which goes against the whole idea of having an independent investigation,” he said.
Despite reports that the project was still moving forward, he said that he was in “no doubt” that the project would ultimately be halted in the face of continued community pressure.