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Areng on back burner?

Monks walk through a community forest during a protest against the Stung Cheay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province late last year
Monks walk through a community forest during a protest against the Stung Cheay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province late last year. Activists say the forest will be entirely flooded by the proposed $400 million development. Daniel Quinlan

Areng on back burner?

Prime Minister Hun Sen has reportedly said the Chinese firm contracted to build the controversial Stung Cheay Areng hydropower dam will not be allowed to start construction in the near future.

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy yesterday said that Hun Sen had assured him, on the sidelines of a parliamentary session in which the dam was discussed, that the dam’s construction had not been definitively decided and that it may be left to future generations.

“Samdech Hun Sen confirmed to me there is no decision yet [to build the Areng dam], and [he] said it might not be done during this mandate. It may be postponed to the next term to let the next generation decide. Please do not worry. I was also happy when I heard this,” Rainsy told reporters after the session.

The prime minister’s alleged comments, which would appear to directly contradict numerous government statements prior, had activists puzzled.

“We still think there is some mystery behind the comments by the Ministry of Mines an Energy and Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, founder of NGO Mother Nature, told the Post.

“The ministry confirms that the project will be completed in 2020, but the premier says it will not be built.”

Eang Sophalleth, a spokesman for Hun Sen, declined to answer questions as he said that he had not heard Rainsy’s comments.

Um Serey Vuth of Sawac Consultants, which has been contracted to carry out the environmental impact assessment at the proposed dam site, said that as far as he knew, his team was waiting for authorisation to finish its work before construction could begin.

“The politics I don’t know. We’re concerned by the environmental aspects. If we can go to study the environmental impact, I will go,” he said. “Until now, we cannot risk [entering] the area. Now we’re waiting for approval.

“We have submitted a letter for approval to the Koh Kong governor. He said they [will] approve it, but … we are waiting for an answer. We call them every week.”

The comments follow a Tuesday press conference held by Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem, during which he said the project would cost $400 million and be finished by 2020.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that Sinohydro Resources, which the Post reported took over the project early this year, had hired a subcontractor to carry out the work.

The new company’s involvement prompted concern from environmentalists and rights groups.

Two other Chinese companies – China Southern Power Grid and China Guodian – backed out of the project after completing environmental and social impact assessments.

Despite the apparent comments by Hun Sen, Minister of Environment Say Sam Al told the National Assembly yesterday that the dam had not been cancelled and nor had construction been postponed.

“The Ministry of Environment has to assess [the site], to collect information so we can debate seriously without hiding [the facts],” he said.

Sam Al’s comments came in response to calls from opposition lawmaker Yim Sovann for the project to be reassessed.

“I notice those reports are not yet perfect. I would like the government to be wary of the project implementation and to study the project once again,” he said.

The Areng dam would displace about 1,300 ethnic Chorng people, according to government figures released this week. The local affiliate of Sinohydro has two of the country’s most influential tycoons on its board of directors, including ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin.

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