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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - China revives dreams of Kampot mega-dam

China revives dreams of Kampot mega-dam

It's

been called Cambodia's own "Three Gorges Dam" in the making. The Cambodian

government says it is in the final stages of negotiations with Chinese state-owned

company Sinohydro about the construction of a 145-meter-high dam on the Kamchay River

that will flood 2,600 hectares of Bokor National Park in Kampot province.

The $280-million hydroelectric project is thought to be China's biggest single investment

in Cambodia, allowing Sinohydro to manage the power plant for 30 years after completion

of the dam in 2010, said Bun Narith, deputy general director of the General Department

of Energy at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME).

The Kamchay River area, 15 km north of Kampot town, has been the subject of interest

from hydro-prospectors since the early 1960s. The proposed Kamchay dam site is in

Mak Prang commune, Kampot district - just 3km upstream from the scenic Tek Chhu waterfall,

which attracts picnicking locals and tourists.

The capital required to build a mega-dam there is huge, but so are the potential

returns.

A study carried out a decade ago by Canadian firms Pomerleau International, Hydro-Quebec

and Experco, estimated that a hydro power plant at Kamchay could generate 469 gigawatt-hours

per year and earn $55 million in annual revenues from the sale of the electricity.

But early attempts to get the project under way halted in the mid-1990s, when the

Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) withdrew funding for a Hydro-Quebec

and Pomerleau feasibility study. CIDA reportedly requested that the financing of

the project be secured before they would release funds for the feasibility study

- an unlikely investment without a feasibility study and an "elegant" way

to freeze the project, according to a Pomerleau source quoted in the Post at the

time.

A decade later, however, the government's top hydroelectric official at MIME is confident

the project will go ahead with Chinese backing.

"We are nearly finished the negotiation and now we hope - 90 percent - that

they will build the Kamchay dam," Narith said. "They will open the construction

site in December or January."

Despite the mega-project being scheduled to start within months, MIME is refusing

to release details of the feasibility study for Kamchay, which should include environmental

and social impact assessments.

Narith says the feasibility study was completed by a Japanese organization in 2002.

"We had a workshop in early 2002 to explain to the people about the feasibility

study, because if we give the whole copy of the report to the people they will not

understand because it is written in English."

Narith refused to release the study to the Post, saying it is a "secret"

document.

Chey Utheareth, director of Bokor National Park, said he had heard talk of a Chinese

company winning a bid to work on the dam, but did not know when it would start.

Utheareth confirmed that the proposed reservoir is within the national park, home

to several species of internationally endangered animals, including tigers.

"I don't know what the impact will be because I've never seen the [feasibility]

report," he said. "At that time [approximately three or four years ago]

one company from Canada came to study the feasibility [of the dam] but they only

informed me they would come and didn't invite me to participate."

"They only had police, soldiers and officials from the Ministry of Industry,

Mines and Energy participating in the study," said Utheareth, adding that he

would follow the government's policy on the construction of Kamchay dam.

Although it is understood that the dam will not displace any residents, it will affect

the livelihoods of those who harvest bamboo and rattan from the forest.

Chun Choun, 37, has spent the last 20 years making daily excursions from his village

in O'Touch to the forest to cut bamboo. He said the planned hydro project made him

nervous because his village was downstream from the proposed dam site.

"I am afraid our country will become like other countries on the TV news, which

televises about breaking dams and flooding that causes a lot of people living downstream

to lose their houses and die," Choun said.

He said neither the research companies nor the government had ever asked locals whether

they supported the dam.

The lack of local consultation could be forgotten, however, in the face of massive

employment opportunities and the positive economic benefits of having a huge construction

project in the area.

"The building project has a five-year duration, so it will need thousands of

workers, because it is the biggest project [in Cambodia]," Narith said. "On

behalf of the government, we will tell the Chinese company to offer the workers an

appropriate wage."

The prospect of steady work is welcome news for some laborers.

Ke Pheap, 35, from Thvey Khang Chheoung village, is another long-time bamboo harvester

who earns 20,000 to 25,000 riel a day selling his wares.

"If they build the dam in the bamboo-cutting area, they have to offer us daily

work otherwise the dam would not remain standing - it would be destroyed [for scrap

materials and to recover bamboo fields] by hungry people who have nothing to eat,"

he said.

"If they hire us, they have to pay us more than 10,000 riel a day," Pheap

said. "I do not work as a construction worker because I would be paid only 7,000

riel a day and would not be able to support my family."

For other locals, the dam could bring prosperity - or the destruction of their way

of life.

Café owner Mao Chon applauds the proposed dam project. While he is concerned

about losing his regular customers - currently about 60 people stop in for coffee

at his shop on the way to the bamboo fields - the influx of thousands of workers

to the area would likely be a boom for business. But Chon is also concerned that

the dam might break and destroy his house, which is downstream from the dam site

and just 50 meters from the Kamchay river.

"Even in a casual flood, the water rises up to my house," Chon said.

Like several other residents interviewed in the area near Kamchay River, Chon said

the risk of floods would be offset by cheap electricity, adding that the current

price was 1,200 riel per kWh.

Chon and his neighbors may be disappointed. Narith said there were no plans to give

discounted electricity to those living near the hydro plant, and that it is difficult

to connect houses located far from each other.

To date, Cambodia's experience with hydroelectricity has been mixed. Kirirom I is

a 12MW power plant in Koh Kong province that supplies electricity to Kampong Speu

and, in the rainy season, 7 percent of Phnom Penh's power. However, when the river

dries up, so does the power supply to the capital. Kirirom I was built by Chinese

company CETIC and is managed by Electricity du Cambodge.

In Ratanakkiri, the $1.2 billion Yali Falls dam across the border in Vietnam has

wreaked havoc on Cambodian villagers downstream on Se San river. At least 39 people

have drowned and thousands of livestock have been washed away by rapidly fluctuating

river levels caused by the dam, according to Canadian NGO Probe International.

Despite the troubles in Ratanakkiri, the government is keen to pursue hydro projects.

There are at least three more dams proposed for Koh Kong and one for Pursat.

But local NGO Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA), is concerned

that the government may be leaping into development projects of impressive scale

without fully considering the potential for environmental and social damage.

Tep Bunnarith, executive director of CEPA, said locals often think dams will bring

free or cheap electricity to their community.

"But they never think of the disadvantages of building dams," said Bunnarith,

who also criticized the lack of transparency in the planning process.

"The government has never opened up to the public, NGOs or even other governmental

organizations themselves to participate in environmental impact assessments [EIAs]

for each project."

He believes that the 2,600-hectare reservoir may affect wild animals in Bokor National

Park, cause a loss of livelihoods for bamboo-cutters and increase the risk of malaria

and dengue fever.

But telling Kamchay River residents of those concerns has attracted the ire of the

local authorities, he said.

"We do our survey to educate as well as to let people know what's going on in

their areas, but the government accuses our survey of not being scientific,"

Bunnarith said.

Touch Seang Tana, a member of the Economic, Social, Culture Observation Unit (OBSES)

and secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, thinks a dam at Kamchay will

have little impact on the environment because, he says, about 80 percent of the vegetation

has already been destroyed by local residents.

"Only science and technology can provide factual information about environmental

impact to the government," Tana said. "We cannot just speak our thoughts

in order to prevent the development."

He said, however, that the EIAs made by officials are often inaccurate and suggested

that university students be engaged to conduct independent environmental assessments.

"If [we] let officials coming from ministries [do the EIA], they will not decide

to offer any area [a development project] unless they get their own profit,"

Tana said. "Only students could accurately research [EIAs]."

Tana said his own research indicates that Chinese dams on the upper stretches of

the Mekong River have caused fish catches in Cambodia to fall by up to 20 percent

in some years, and said the large investment in Kamchay might be a way for China

to curry favor with the Cambodian government.

The Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on its dam building program

in Cambodia and around the region.

Other dam experts, however, dispute Tana's theory and say China is backing the dam

because they have the experience to pull off huge construction projects. Between

1949 and 1990, China built 86,000 hydro dams, including 22,000 "great dams,"

according to 2002 research into the Manwan Power Plant conducted for Oxfam Hong Kong.

Those who have followed China's dam industry offer words of caution to Cambodia.

"My advice to every government: before they build the dam, they have to do EIA

and SIA [social impact assessments] as much as possible, and they have to listen

to NGOs," said Zhuang Li, administrative officer for Green Watershed's Kunming

office.

"Then the government has to compare the advantages and the disadvantages [of

a large dam] and see which one has more benefit," Li said.

 

 

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