VILLAGERS from across the country have voiced fears that a spate of hydropower dam projects on the cusp of development will damage the environment and threaten their livelihoods.
Village representatives from Stung Treng, Pursat, Kampot and Ratanakkiri provinces gathered for a forum in Phnom Penh on Wednesday to air their concerns, citing the experience of current and past projects.
Vann Thun, a representative of ethnic Stieng villagers in Pursat province who live near a dam development in neighbouring Koh Kong province, said construction has already altered river flows, causing irregular flooding and eating into the village’s natural economic resources.
“We rely on forest products to make a living, but since the government allowed the Chinese company to develop the Stung Atay dam our livelihoods have been reduced,” he told the forum, referring to the 120-megawatt Stung Atay dam currently under construction by China’s Yunnan Corporation for International Techno-Economic Cooperation.
Em Phuom, a representative for a village that lies close to the US$280 million Kamchay Dam under construction in Kampot province’s Teuk Chhou district, said the structure had caused flooding in neighbouring communes, disrupting the livelihoods of locals.
Fourteen dams – five of which are already under construction – are on the drawing board in Cambodia, part of a government plan to secure the country’s long-term energy needs and boost economic development.
According to figures from the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mines presented at the forum, the government aims to triple its energy output from a projected 808 megawatts this year to nearly 4,000 megawatts by 2020, with the goal of connecting 70 percent of the population to electricity.
However, environmental activists who were present at the forum seconded villagers’ calls for careful studies into environmental and social impacts.
“We do not oppose the hydropower dams in the government development plan, but we need to discuss about the socio-environmental impact,” said Chith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, one of the event’s organisers.
“We will lose natural resources such as forests and fisheries if construction of hydropower dams goes ahead without specific studies on their impacts.”
Klan Thy, a representative from Ratanakkiri’s Andong Meas district, said effects from the Yali Falls dam on the Sesan River in Vietnam, completed in 1995, demonstrated the potential downsides of the projects.
“Some of the villagers in my community have moved to other areas because the flooding destroyed their homelands and their income was reduced,” he said.
Others said the long-term benefits of hydropower developments would outweigh the short-term impacts.
Shu Jiang, deputy managing director of the Sinohydro Kamchay Hydro Project Co, which is constructing the Kamchay Dam in Kampot, said cheap power would give great benefits to locals once the dam is completed in 2013.
He said the company had held discussions with the provincial governor about local impacts but dismissed concerns that the project was responsible for flooding in Kampot.
“It is not the Kamchay Hydroelectric Project but the lasting rainstorms [that] caused this flood,” the company said in a statement provided to the Post.
Pich Dun, secretary general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, said that in tapping Cambodia’s potential for hydropower development, the government was not ignoring the likely environmental effects.
“The government is trying to find some way of developing [Cambodia’s] potential,” he said. “In the meantime, the government has also requested detailed studies on the environmental impacts of the construction of the hydropower dams.”