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Dammed if you do...

A hydropower dam being built in southwestern Cambodia will destroy more than 5,000 hectares of protected forests, say researchers who conducted an environmental assessment for the joint-venture’s Chinese partner.

The revelation was made by Um Serey Vuth, the leader of a team of researchers employed by the China Datang Corporation.

The corporation and its partners, CHD Cambodia Hydropower Development and Cambodia Power Grid, unveiled plans in May to invest $313.36 million to build the 120MW Atay dam, which is due for completion in 2012.

Serey Vuth, who headed a team of 10 researchers, said the assessment showed the dam would destroy 5,193 hectares of protected forests in the Phnom Samkok Wildlife Sanctuary and the Cardamom Mountains.

He said the assessment began in May, when work started on the project, and was completed late last month.

The assessment showed the dam would flood 3,650 hectares of protected forest in the wildlife sanctuary and 1,543 hectares of protected forest in the mountain ranges, he said.

He said trees had to be removed from the affected areas otherwise they would affect the quality of water in the dam.

Serey Vuth said, however, that the dam would have a minimal impact on people living in the project area and would bring much needed electricity to the Kingdom.

“Only 36 families in three villages in O’Som commune, Veal Veng district, Pursat province will be affected, along with about 1,000 fruit trees and 10 hectares of farmland,” said Serey Vuth.

He said the local authority and residents supported the project.

 “The authority and the people support the project 100 percent because they will have access to the electricity generated by the dam," Serey Vuth said.

Seng Bunra, the country director of US-based NGO Conservation International, expressed qualified reservations about the project.

"For environmentalists, 5,000 hectares of protected forest is a lot if we are talking about preserving biodiversity, wildlife and habitats, and absorbing carbon dioxide," Bunra told the Post on July 3.

"But sometimes we need to make sacrifices because our country needs electricity and we just express our concerns.

"We can't prevent the government from developing the country but what we insist on with this project is protection for forests around the dam site to avoid further destruction," he said, warning that if this was not done up 10,000 hectares would be at risk of being cleared of trees.

He said that the Cardamom Mountains, which cover about two million hectares, is a unique eco-system in Cambodia containing rare wildlife such as tigers, elephants, wild buffalo, bears, Siamese crocodiles and dragon fish.

"In the Southeast Asian region, there is no protected forest as picturesque as those in the Cardamom Mountains," Bunra said.

Defending the project, Ith Praing, secretary of state for the Ministry of Industry, Mine and Energy, told the Post on July 3 that environmental damage was acceptable in hydropower projects because an adequate electricity supply was crucial for attracting foreign investment.

“Before allowing the development, we had to weigh its environmental impact and its contribution to development," he said.

"We see that development provides more advantages, so we decided to approve the project," Praing said, adding that improvements in electricity supply would also help to raise living standards.

“The more electricity is generated, the cheaper it will be, so there will be more foreign investors interested in doing business in Cambodia," he said.

Praing said the Atay hydropower project was one of three in protected forest areas in the Cardamom Mountains involving Chinese companies.

He said the two others were approved in mid-June. They are the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation's $540 million project to build the 246MW Tatay River dam, due for completion in 2013, and the 338MW Russey Chrum Krom project, involving an investment of $495.7 million by the Michelle Corporation, due to be finished in 2015.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann said that while the country needed to generate more electricity, the government should do more to protect forests in areas adjoining project sites.



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