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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - "Water is our gold" - the battle of words begins

"Water is our gold" - the battle of words begins

"Water is our gold" - the battle of words begins

"FOR us we have nothing but our water," said National Mekong River Commission

(NMRC) director Khy Taing Lim. "Water is our oil, our mines of gold, our main

natural resource... we must use our water to export, and get foreign currency to

develop the country."

Taing Lim, an engineer and a member of the riparian nations' Mekong River Commission

(MRC), confirmed that the Sambor project is high on the MRC's priority list.

"Sambor is a good project, a very good project. It's economically viable and

easy to build," he said.

Taing Lim has thrown his weight - and that of the NMRC - behind a 465 megawatt development

of the Mekong River at Sambor.

But he concedes that the other proposal before the MRC - a $4 billion, 3,300 megawatt

dam - could still be chosen. Or, perhaps, a "balance" between the two.

The MRC seems determined and keen to look closely at selecting Sambor as the site

for the Mekong's first mainstream hydro plant. Cambodia needs the money; Thailand

and Vietnam are hungry for the power.

The big dam project would be disastrous, said Owen Lammars of the International Rivers

Network. The canal option was dubious, and still posed a number of problems, he said.

Taing Lim said: "Thailand alone needs 500 megawatts of power a year just to

continue it's growth. Vietnam will be even bigger one day. They need our power."

"The project is economically sound. We have an immediate market to sell our

product, we don't need to wait," he said.

Taing Lim said Cambodia wanted to share it's natural resources with its neighbors,

to create friendship and co-operation, and get money for other developments.

"If we export Sambor electricity we will have the money to build other projects,

especially dams, canals and irrigation schemes," he said.

Cambodia did not need Sambor power "because it's too much for us, so we must

export it." Three other hydroelectric dams - at Chinit, Prek Thnot and in Battambang

- could provide more than enough power for local use.

"And we don't want to create a big reservoir. [Sambor] is a run-of-river project,"

he said.

Taing Lim recognized the problems that a big dam would cause. He also acknowledged

that the issues involving fisheries and sedimentation still needed investigating

with the smaller project. Critics like Lammars fear that Thailand and the MRC are

much stronger than Cambodia - the weakest of the four riparian countries - and might

yet insist on a 3,300 megawatt dam. Regardless, Lammars said, the big dam proposal

is still sitting in front of the MRC, no matter what Taing Lim might say.

Taing Lim said Cambodia would not invest in something as big as Sambor, but he said

it would not be hard to find private investors to do so.

"We don't want charity, but there will be investors who will be very interested

in this project," he said.

"People attack and attack me, they say I am a big dam builder," he said.

"They say don't touch Sambor. OK, so help us achieve our development program

for Cambodia then.

"If we don't have Sambor, how can we [develop]. How can we do?

"No, I consider water is our mines of gold. It's our oil. We don't have other

things. We have Angkor and we try and keep that," he said.

Taing Lim said a balance must be struck between the benefits and costs of such a

project. "We would not permit the destruction of everything for just a small

benefit, we must compare," he said.

"If the impacts of Sambor are too high, then we say forget Sambor.

"But with modern technology, I think we can find ways to correct, or reduce

the impact."

"But we want to live in this world, and contribute to the peace and live in

harmony with our neighbors."

Taing Lim said much more investigation was needed into Sambor.

"We wouldn't want such a big area flooded. And we must think about the impact

on the fisheries. But I think modern technology can solve this problem of fish migration."

MRC chairman and Cambodian vice-prime minister Ing Kieth is on record as endorsing

the priority hydro plans of the MRC. Environment Minister Mok Mareth has said that

mainstream dams should not be built.

Lammars said: ''Putting a concrete plug in the middle of the Mekong will destroy

the fisheries and increase sedimentation.

"These are two things there are no answers for... nobody can say they can do

anything about it. If they're honest, they should say 'Yes we know, but we just don't

care'."

Big dam studies show a fish ladder will be built into the structure. "But there's

not a fish ladder in the world that functions," Lammars said.

"They're tearing down dams in the United States now to try and reconstruct the

fisheries. And they're trying to come up with schemes to flush away sedimentation,

but they haven't perfected anything even on a small scale."

Sediment builds up from the back of the reservoir, he said, in the long term filling

the reservoir, cutting down the generating capacity and eventually "affecting

the integrity of the dam itself."

Lammars rejects the argument that Sambor would promote better, controlled irrigation.

"That brings in a whole other slew of issues about whether large scale irrigation

schemes are sustainable."

"Big dams force people to rely on fertilizers because the natural sediments

get washed away and build up in the reservoir.

"Because you're spending a significant amount of money on the dam, and irrigation

and fertilizer you have to grow cash crops, typically cotton and tobacco. You end

up displacing those who used to be subsistent... large holdings displace smaller

farmers."

But it is the social impact of a big dam where "compensation cannot even come

close to reconstruct the livelihoods of the people."

"There is not one example of a successful resettlement project... but there

are countless examples of unsuccessful ones, just ask your neighbors Thailand.

"No amount of money can bring back the fish. You could give them a billion baht,

they would spend it in three years and still they won't have any fishery," Lammars

said.

Villagers in Thailand have asked Lammars how to bring the fish back. Lammars told

them they had to pull down the dam. "It's kind of sick," he said.

"We have heard it from these people," he said, "they don't want to

move."

The term "run-of-river" - which was coined to describe how power could

be generated without badly affecting the river flow - was "a misnomer... to

soften the impact of the word 'dam'," he said.

Cambodia should have the ability to earn foreign currency to develop itself, he said.

However, history suggests that big dams cost more and gave less revenue than anticipated.

"We're just saying they should have enough information to make an informed decision

and not repeat failed history."

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