Conflicting reports began to emerge yesterday regarding the fate of the four workers thought to have been swept away when a burst pipeline caused a torrent of water to come rushing out of Pursat province’s Stung Atai hydroelectric dam on Saturday.
According to the provincial governor, police had found all four missing workers unharmed, while Veal Veng district authorities maintained that only one worker had been found so far – and that he had never been washed away in the first place.
What all parties seem to agree on, however, is that the four men were standing outside, next to the waters below the dam, when the malfunction occurred.
“When they took a break, they went to find fish below the dam,” said Pursat Governor Khoy Sokha, who said that all four were swept to safety and had already returned to their houses.
“They were washed away by the water when the pipe burst. They went home because they were scared after the accident.”
Veal Veng district police chief Theang Leng, however, said that only one of the four had been found – when he turned up for work the next morning.
The man, Leng said, had gone down below the dam with his co-workers, but after having a few drinks, retreated into the forest far from the water for a nap, and returned to the dam for work at 7am yesterday.
“We are looking for the other three workers who have disappeared,” said Leng, adding that he had no information about four additional workers who were injured in the incident and sent for treatment in Phnom Penh “because it is the company’s responsibility”.
District governor Chhe Chhiv, who accompanied Leng into the field, corroborated his account.
“The man we found told us that he went to put a net trap in the water, and then went to sleep in the forest,” Chhiv said. “He didn’t know where his three co-workers went; we are looking for them now.”
Ngai Shina, police chief of O’Som commune, where the dam is located, said that he feared the three missing men were dead but had not surfaced because their bodies were stuck in the mud at the bottom of the river. Meanwhile, unconfirmed rumours placed the death toll at five, with more missing and presumed dead.
As of yesterday, the environmental impact of the malfunction also remained unclear.
Ame Trandem, the Southeast Asia program director of International Rivers, said that while she had not visited the site, there are potential consequences to emptying a reservoir.
“I don’t think the reservoir was completely full yet, but all this water was released in the first few hours, and all that water can have negative impacts on downstream people,” she said, noting that water held in a dam’s reservoir is less oxygenated than flowing water.
“When you have a water surge changing the hydrological dynamics of a river, it has an impact on the biodiversity of a river; it can have an impact on fisheries.
“You’re also basically wiping away the riverbanks,” she added.
According to Trandem, the Stung Atai incident is only the latest in a string of dam construction accidents around Southeast Asia, and that issues such as poor engineering, inferior materials and the “new level of uncertainty” added by climate change raised legitimate concerns.
“This is why the Cambodian government should carry out an immediate investigation,” she said, noting that she was unaware of any investigations being carried out in previous incidents.
“Hopefully, Cambodia will realise that you need increased accountability and transparency in hydropower dam projects.”
Provincial governor Sokha played down the accident’s impact on the dam’s completion – scheduled for next year – but said it would require the reservoir to be drained and the pipeline to be repaired, a process that may take up to two months.
Heng Sokung, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said that Veal Veng officials and work teams had visited the scene and determined that the malfunction would affect neither the project, nor nearby residents.
“On behalf of secretary of Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, I absolutely reject all information that has spread contrary to the truth,” said Sokung, apparently referring to media reports that the dam had collapsed.
“The hydroelectric dam was not broken; it was only a little pipe that burst.”
The dam’s Chinese builder, Cambodia Hydro Power Development, could not be reached for comment.