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Five injured and four missing after dam breaches

A malfunction in a pipeline and the ensuing torrent of water it released left at least five workers injured and four more missing on Saturday at the Stung Atai hydropower dam in Pursat province.

The incident has raised old concerns about workplace safety in Cambodia, police said yesterday.

Veal Veng district Police Chief Theang Leng said four workers were seriously injured, one was slightly injured and four others were swept away when the force of the water running through a pipeline caused it to burst.

The workers had been chatting downstream, near the gate water passes through on its way to the dam’s dynamo, which converts the current into electricity. When the pipe burst, the unsuspecting workers were inundated.

“Up until now, none of the workers were killed, though expert officials are searching for the missing workers,” Leng said.

He added that the injured workers were receiving treatment at a hospital in Phnom Penh, and that experts were studying the causes of the event, and the scope of the damage.

Construction on the Stung Atai dam began in May 2008, and was slated to be finished in 2013.

The $255 million project is meant to supply power to Pursat province, with the remainder being sent to Phnom Penh and Battambang province.

Khou Sokha, the provincial governor of Pursat, reiterated that the incident was not a collapse of the 120-megawatt dam, but simply a breakage in the pipeline.

“It is the first test of releasing the water; however, it is not a huge concern because we will repair the damaged pipeline after the water is completely released,” he said.

Sokha added there was no news so far on the status of the missing workers, but the company – Chinese-owned Cambodia Hydropower Dam Development Co, Ltd – would be responsible for cost of the injured workers’ medical treatment.  

According to Dave Welsh, the country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, “the provincial governor is right: there is a legal obligation” on the company to compensate the workers for harm suffered in the course of employment.

However, he noted, “often the reality is that it depends on the good nature of the employer”.

The incident at Stung Atai wasn’t the first instance this year that raised questions about the safety of workers in the construction sector. 

In March, a 100-metre section of an industrial building collapsed shortly after construction was completed, just days before workers were scheduled to move in.

In August a building under construction also collapsed, injuring 16 workers, eight of them seriously.

In fact, Ministry of Labour figures show that in the first six months of the year, 21 workers were killed on construction sites, and nearly 6,000 were injured.

“If you’re an individual worker working for a small company, or if you’re an individual worker and there’s not a union involved, it’s very difficult,” to get employers honour their obligations, Welsh added.

Though the government has been taking positive steps towards issuing new directives protecting workers’ rights, Welsh said, occupational health and safety in Cambodia is “definitely not up to international standards”, and the need for better enforcement in the area of building regulations is only made more urgent by the fast-paced growth in the construction sector.

“Like the labour law, [the safety code] looks good on the books, but it’s a matter of application,” he said.  “The construction projects are just growing by leaps and bounds... so whatever is on the books needs to be better applied by law.”

The Stung Atai project has come under fire in the past for a lack of government oversight extending beyond construction safety.

“[Stung Atai] was the first of these Cardamom dams,” said Marcus Hardtke, a conservationist who has worked with forest monitors in the past.  

“In all these projects you have very limited government oversight, and if you look at the reporting about the [environment impact assessment] process... a very small amount of projects go through the EIA process,” he added.

Representatives for Cambodia Hydropower Dam Development could not be reached for comment yesterday.

To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com
Stuart White at stuart.white@phnompenhpost.com

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