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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The $200m mountains and rivers of Kampong Speu

The $200m mountains and rivers of Kampong Speu


From a trickle of dry season water a reservoir will grow to a quarter the size of Singapore.

PREK THNOT, Kampong Speu - The people living in the shadow of Phnom Ang Khmang, 15kms from town and 6kms off Route 4, are barely managing to eke out an existence since returning home.

Much of this vast area seems scarcely habitable, on sun-roasted sands with thin regenerating forests and little water.

Villagers grow rice during the rains and in the dry season venture deep into the forests to cut single hardwood trees. They haul trunks out by cart, hand-dress and sell them to middlemen to load into Maersk or Nedloyd shipping containers for Kampong Som.

It's going to be a tough year. Worms have decimated their corn and rice, and each saleable tree now takes them a month to find, cut and dress. It used to take six days.

Snaking through some of the luckier villages is Prek Thnot - Sugar Palm river - which provides them with water and some fish. In the wet season, Prek Thnot is an artery for flash floods from the Cardomom and Elephant mountain ranges. In the dry season, there's barely enough water for the kids to swim in.

But this is home, one the people have only begun remaking since returning in three waves from IDP camps such as O'Koki and O'Klea between 1991 and 1995.

Far further inland from the 167m-tall Phnom, into the wild lands of Kampong Speu, more folk are only now returning from the camps to dense forest homelands freed from civil war.

Toward the Elephant Mountains inland from Kirirom, de-mining teams are finding it difficult to keep up with the people single-mindedly trudging home. Their homes are ringed with "Danger: Mines" signs. The area is virulently malarial.

While seemingly so poor and desperate, the people have come back for a reason: it's their land, as beautiful and dangerous as it is. The Khmer Rouge are no longer warring. The pineapples and papayas and forest foods have grown plentiful. Hopefully CMAC and MAG deminers or domestic and wild animals - perhaps even tigers, which are not uncommon here - can find the bombs before they're otherwise detonated.

There are 17,700 people, most of them arrived back only within the last two to four years, living in 43 villages in the watersheds of the Prek Thnot and its tributaries. Aid workers say there are probably less, 12,000 or so.

Most of the 26,500 hectares in these watersheds is, or was once, arable land. There are, according to a 1994 report, also 3,400 houses, 43 public offices, 15 schools and 11 temples. Again, aid workers say this is overstated; many buildings have been destroyed or rotted from disuse.

After the July elections, one of the new government's first deals - now being hurried behind the scenes - will change this land for good.

The deal will be the single biggest development in recent Cambodian history, and will cost $200 million, up to 40% of Cambodia's GDP.

The people - just back from war - will be forced from their land again, their rice paddies, homes, temples and schools under 18m of water. The Prek Thnot hydroproject, a series of five earthfill dams in total more than ten kilometers-long and standing 28.3m high, will flood the lower boundaries of the Prek Thnot watershed. The artificial lake will be more than a quarter of the size of Singapore, 256 square kilometers.

The dams will link four individual mountains - one of them Phnom Ang Khmang - and one mountain range as pillars of a single huge earthen dam.

It will generate 18 megawatts of power; irrigate 70,000 hectares of downstream land almost to the Tonle Bassac in three provinces (Kampong Speu, Takeo and Kandal); and in theory tame the flash floods that regularly cripple Kampong Speu.

Japanese consultants Nippon Koei have held recent discussions with First Prime Minister Ung Huot about the project, and Japanese contruction giant Maeda is keen to finish the job it began in 1969.

Cambodia Mekong River Commission (CNMC) vice chairman Khy Taing Lim says Prek Thnot is Cambodia's "first priority".

Taing Lim is as bullish as both Prime Ministers, the Japanese, the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, the powerful Directorate of Irrigation, Hydrology and Meterology in the Ministry of Agriculture and local authorities, to get Prek Thnot built.

"We must build infrastructure!" Taing Lim says, banging his fist on his table. "We must use our water resources."

A new $200m-hydroproject will also be a fat birthday present for the bureaucrats of the Mekong Secretariat which will relocate from Bangkok to Phnom Penh in July.

Taing Lim says funding negotiations are now underway with Japan.

He hopes Cambodia will receive grant aid for the irrigation half of the project, and borrow the rest - maybe $100m - for the hydropower dam.

Japan, although publicly coy as to its intentions, has a policy of supporting hydropower projects in the Mekong region through its official aid arm, the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF).

The OECF has recently financed its first dam on a Mekong tributary in Laos, the Nam Leuk. The OECF's planned consolidation with Japan's Export-Import Bank will make it as rich as the World Bank.

Money is not a problem.

But the cost of Prek Thnot in Cambodia's context will make it contentious.

International lenders will likely be extremely cautious in investing such a large percentage of Cam-bodia's GDP in one project. If half of that is to be borrowed, Cambodian leaders will have to be sure the economic gains from electricity, irrigation and flood control are worth the risk.

Nonetheless, even the skeptics acknowledge that the arguments for building Prek Thnot appear sound.

For starters, Japanese and Australian engineers had already begun construction in 1969, only for war to drive them out in 1973. One diversion weir, Roland Chrey, was finished but now needs repair.

Secondly, the power generated will go mainly to the string of light industries now setting up along Route 4.

These industries will hire local labor, proponents say, creating employment and paying taxes to the national budget - something which will have to begin to happen if Cambodia suddenly has a $100m debt to service.

Taing Lim cites a related benefit: "It will stop the influx of people coming into Phnom Penh. This is my dream, it will encourage people [to go] back to the country. This benefit can't be quantified in figures."

Prek Thnot's water will also create a fully-irrigated garden of 70,000-hectares for year-round crops.


From this feature the Prek Thnot dam will stretch 4kms to the left of the mountain, and 10kms to the right.

The government may be inclined to sell such enriched land to agri-businesses however, again because more tax dollars can be got from the big corporations than from subsistence farmers.

The intensive use of chemicals which leach into drinking and fishing waters is an almost natural by-product of year-round irrigated cash-cropping.

Almost impossible to quantify in dollar terms is the protection the Prek Thnot dam will give Kam-pong Speu from floods.

The province suffers more than any other because its floods are neither predictable nor do they bring with them alluvial deposits to benefit the rice paddies.

Kampong Speu flash-floods with run-off from the western mountain ranges which are being rapidly deforested. People die, livestock die, and much time and money is spent in emergency aid and periodic clean-ups.

Taing Lim - who was site construction foreman for one of the world's biggest dams, James Bay I in Canada ("We cut a mountain in half," he says, "I can build Prek Thnot... easy!") - sees Prek Thnot linking with the Kirirom and Kam-chay dams to develop Cambodia's south-east into a huge "export processing zone".

Cambodia is better placed to calculate the costs and benefits of a major dam than any other country in the world , simply because Prek Thnot will be its first.

The lessons learned from overseas are already contained in a paper from the Ministry of Environment that many, including the NGO Forum, are keen to see linked into official policy.

The Ministry says that Cam-bodia's water resources have been "underused" only for transport, drinking, irrigation and fishing.

It says that a national water management policy is needed for agriculture, fisheries, clean domestic use, hydropower, transport, industry and tourism.

The government has demanded every right to use its river water to harness electricity and says it needs private investors to help pay for hydro-projects, and probably manage them too.

But the ministry's paper criticizes previous Prek Thnot studies as being neither comprehensive nor fully reflective of the people's situation.

The early studies by dam consultants say that most of the villagers want the dam, but the ministry says that the studies were too limited, and that the villagers did "not have adequate information or the appropriate technical and analytical skills for making sound decisions...".

Villagers in the proposed reservoir area interviewed by the Post only knew of the Prek Thnot dam as something that was to have happened under then-Prince Sih-anouk in the 1960s.

Very few seemed to understand the likelihood or consequences of its revival.

The ministry says that the CNMC must provide a forum where everyone affected can meet, discuss issues, and strike acceptable solutions.

The estimated 17,700 people who will be displaced must get "land for land", not "money for land".

Villagers interviewed by the Post who knew about the dam - most did not - repeated this view. "If the state supplies us with land and helps us, we will move," said one village chief.

"[But] local communities are poorly organized," says the min-istry's report "and do not have the capacity to protect their interests."

"It's not just the people whose homes are going to be flooded," said one aid worker. "It's the thousands living outside the area that's going to go underwater and who have their rice paddies in there."

The Ministry of Environment report reveals that for every 3.6ha owned by each family now, they will get 1.6ha in return for moving.

"Therefore, the 'land for land' approach is unrealistic because there is not enough land in the resettlement sites," it says.

The Post also learned about the three proposed resettlement sites for the future Prek Thnot displaced: the Hong Samnan site is mined and has poor soil; the Tang Samrong site is on high sloping land unsuitable for rice; and the Cambok site is a swamp.

The 62-page 1994 environment study report, done by Nippon Koei in association with Australia's Snowy Mountains Engineering Corp which identified the three sites, did not once mention the words "land mines".

"[The people] should be resettled where they chose to go and paid adequate compensation. They should only have to change their livelihoods if they are willing to do so," the ministry says.

Taing Lim knows compensation has to be addressed: "Yes, yes, we have to do this," he says. But his real passion, and an infectious one, is about all the benefits that will come from Prek Thnot; about the money it will generate from power and irrigation.

The 1994 study mentions a figure of almost $29 million that should be spent on preparing land, houses, public facilities, roads, water, drainage and power for those displaced by the Prek Thnot dam.

If that figure is ever set aside, there will be hundreds of thousands of Cambodians flocking to Kampong Speu for such a generous handout.

But one problem is that none of the people of the Prek Thnot watershed have land titles. And, because they haven't been living in their traditional homes for five or more years, they may not be able to prove their ownership to get any compensation.

The people who may qualify for much of any compensation money are the army generals who have taken swathes of land around and in the dam site. All three proposed resettlement sites are reportedly owned by military chiefs.

The military also control ownership of the land along Route 4 now being snapped up by light industrialists and plantation companies.

Some aid agencies are now becoming reluctant to spend money on inland Kampong Speu if the future of their projects is to be a watery one. In jargon it's called "development blight".

"It's a concern," says NGO Forum representative Russell Peter-son. "Community-based development can be put on hold if people are unsure of the future. Meanwhile people in the area are denied the help they really need."

Peterson says that NGOs are not for or against the dam: "Our immediate reaction is to ensure that the local communities are adequately consulted in developments that will affect their future... That they are involved in planning before the project is signed and becomes irreversible.

"I believe too that Cambodia has a real lesson to learn from what has happened in neighboring countries."

The Ministry of Environment agrees: "We recognize the importance of public involvement... [But] for us, public participation in hydro-projects is a very long way [off]" and much still needs to be done.

Many other issues will surface from Prek Thnot. For instance, even the dam consultants acknowledge the serious health implications of increased malaria.

There is also a risk of incidence of AIDS among the "gold-rush towns" that will inevitably spring up during the years of construction.

And the issue of stripping bare 26,000-odd hectares of land of all its foliage must be addressed soon, if only to ensure the water in the reservoir is not to become poisoned for the hatchery fisheries the dam builders say can be developed there.

The benefits - and prestige - of a Prek Thnot dam are probably too vast for the government to ignore.

And the Ministry of Environment, which will be responsible for the environmental impact studies, says: "The government is paying considerable attention to developing extensive strategies for the resettlement and compensation plan. [It] wants the experience of this project to serve as a model for resettlement issues for future projects in Cambodia."

Everyone wants to believe that previous mistakes can be avoided (and there are no shortage of them: a World Bank report on 40 random dam projects it had lent to said that 39 of them had "failed" in providing proper resettlement for displaced people. NGOs say it should have been a 100% failure rate but for the Bank equivocating about the 40th).

Skeptical observers say that for $200 million even the most honest intentions - Khmer-held or otherwise - can become warped.

For the people living under the shadow of Phnom Ang Khmang, it may soon be time to pack up their lives again.

If they could see the advantages of another eviction - and a $29 million compensation package would go a long way toward providing them that - they may leave happy this time, and perhaps even volunteer to throw the first fistful of dirt into the Prek Thnot river.

It would be a world first.



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