been called Cambodia's own "Three Gorges Dam" in the making. The Cambodian
government says it is in the final stages of negotiations with Chinese state-owned
company Sinohydro about the construction of a 145-meter-high dam on the Kamchay River
that will flood 2,600 hectares of Bokor National Park in Kampot province.
The $280-million hydroelectric project is thought to be China's biggest single investment
in Cambodia, allowing Sinohydro to manage the power plant for 30 years after completion
of the dam in 2010, said Bun Narith, deputy general director of the General Department
of Energy at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME).
The Kamchay River area, 15 km north of Kampot town, has been the subject of interest
from hydro-prospectors since the early 1960s. The proposed Kamchay dam site is in
Mak Prang commune, Kampot district - just 3km upstream from the scenic Tek Chhu waterfall,
which attracts picnicking locals and tourists.
The capital required to build a mega-dam there is huge, but so are the potential
A study carried out a decade ago by Canadian firms Pomerleau International, Hydro-Quebec
and Experco, estimated that a hydro power plant at Kamchay could generate 469 gigawatt-hours
per year and earn $55 million in annual revenues from the sale of the electricity.
But early attempts to get the project under way halted in the mid-1990s, when the
Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) withdrew funding for a Hydro-Quebec
and Pomerleau feasibility study. CIDA reportedly requested that the financing of
the project be secured before they would release funds for the feasibility study
- an unlikely investment without a feasibility study and an "elegant" way
to freeze the project, according to a Pomerleau source quoted in the Post at the
A decade later, however, the government's top hydroelectric official at MIME is confident
the project will go ahead with Chinese backing.
"We are nearly finished the negotiation and now we hope - 90 percent - that
they will build the Kamchay dam," Narith said. "They will open the construction
site in December or January."
Despite the mega-project being scheduled to start within months, MIME is refusing
to release details of the feasibility study for Kamchay, which should include environmental
and social impact assessments.
Narith says the feasibility study was completed by a Japanese organization in 2002.
"We had a workshop in early 2002 to explain to the people about the feasibility
study, because if we give the whole copy of the report to the people they will not
understand because it is written in English."
Narith refused to release the study to the Post, saying it is a "secret"
Chey Utheareth, director of Bokor National Park, said he had heard talk of a Chinese
company winning a bid to work on the dam, but did not know when it would start.
Utheareth confirmed that the proposed reservoir is within the national park, home
to several species of internationally endangered animals, including tigers.
"I don't know what the impact will be because I've never seen the [feasibility]
report," he said. "At that time [approximately three or four years ago]
one company from Canada came to study the feasibility [of the dam] but they only
informed me they would come and didn't invite me to participate."
"They only had police, soldiers and officials from the Ministry of Industry,
Mines and Energy participating in the study," said Utheareth, adding that he
would follow the government's policy on the construction of Kamchay dam.
Although it is understood that the dam will not displace any residents, it will affect
the livelihoods of those who harvest bamboo and rattan from the forest.
Chun Choun, 37, has spent the last 20 years making daily excursions from his village
in O'Touch to the forest to cut bamboo. He said the planned hydro project made him
nervous because his village was downstream from the proposed dam site.
"I am afraid our country will become like other countries on the TV news, which
televises about breaking dams and flooding that causes a lot of people living downstream
to lose their houses and die," Choun said.
He said neither the research companies nor the government had ever asked locals whether
they supported the dam.
The lack of local consultation could be forgotten, however, in the face of massive
employment opportunities and the positive economic benefits of having a huge construction
project in the area.
"The building project has a five-year duration, so it will need thousands of
workers, because it is the biggest project [in Cambodia]," Narith said. "On
behalf of the government, we will tell the Chinese company to offer the workers an
The prospect of steady work is welcome news for some laborers.
Ke Pheap, 35, from Thvey Khang Chheoung village, is another long-time bamboo harvester
who earns 20,000 to 25,000 riel a day selling his wares.
"If they build the dam in the bamboo-cutting area, they have to offer us daily
work otherwise the dam would not remain standing - it would be destroyed [for scrap
materials and to recover bamboo fields] by hungry people who have nothing to eat,"
"If they hire us, they have to pay us more than 10,000 riel a day," Pheap
said. "I do not work as a construction worker because I would be paid only 7,000
riel a day and would not be able to support my family."
For other locals, the dam could bring prosperity - or the destruction of their way
Café owner Mao Chon applauds the proposed dam project. While he is concerned
about losing his regular customers - currently about 60 people stop in for coffee
at his shop on the way to the bamboo fields - the influx of thousands of workers
to the area would likely be a boom for business. But Chon is also concerned that
the dam might break and destroy his house, which is downstream from the dam site
and just 50 meters from the Kamchay river.
"Even in a casual flood, the water rises up to my house," Chon said.
Like several other residents interviewed in the area near Kamchay River, Chon said
the risk of floods would be offset by cheap electricity, adding that the current
price was 1,200 riel per kWh.
Chon and his neighbors may be disappointed. Narith said there were no plans to give
discounted electricity to those living near the hydro plant, and that it is difficult
to connect houses located far from each other.
To date, Cambodia's experience with hydroelectricity has been mixed. Kirirom I is
a 12MW power plant in Koh Kong province that supplies electricity to Kampong Speu
and, in the rainy season, 7 percent of Phnom Penh's power. However, when the river
dries up, so does the power supply to the capital. Kirirom I was built by Chinese
company CETIC and is managed by Electricity du Cambodge.
In Ratanakkiri, the $1.2 billion Yali Falls dam across the border in Vietnam has
wreaked havoc on Cambodian villagers downstream on Se San river. At least 39 people
have drowned and thousands of livestock have been washed away by rapidly fluctuating
river levels caused by the dam, according to Canadian NGO Probe International.
Despite the troubles in Ratanakkiri, the government is keen to pursue hydro projects.
There are at least three more dams proposed for Koh Kong and one for Pursat.
But local NGO Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA), is concerned
that the government may be leaping into development projects of impressive scale
without fully considering the potential for environmental and social damage.
Tep Bunnarith, executive director of CEPA, said locals often think dams will bring
free or cheap electricity to their community.
"But they never think of the disadvantages of building dams," said Bunnarith,
who also criticized the lack of transparency in the planning process.
"The government has never opened up to the public, NGOs or even other governmental
organizations themselves to participate in environmental impact assessments [EIAs]
for each project."
He believes that the 2,600-hectare reservoir may affect wild animals in Bokor National
Park, cause a loss of livelihoods for bamboo-cutters and increase the risk of malaria
and dengue fever.
But telling Kamchay River residents of those concerns has attracted the ire of the
local authorities, he said.
"We do our survey to educate as well as to let people know what's going on in
their areas, but the government accuses our survey of not being scientific,"
Touch Seang Tana, a member of the Economic, Social, Culture Observation Unit (OBSES)
and secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, thinks a dam at Kamchay will
have little impact on the environment because, he says, about 80 percent of the vegetation
has already been destroyed by local residents.
"Only science and technology can provide factual information about environmental
impact to the government," Tana said. "We cannot just speak our thoughts
in order to prevent the development."
He said, however, that the EIAs made by officials are often inaccurate and suggested
that university students be engaged to conduct independent environmental assessments.
"If [we] let officials coming from ministries [do the EIA], they will not decide
to offer any area [a development project] unless they get their own profit,"
Tana said. "Only students could accurately research [EIAs]."
Tana said his own research indicates that Chinese dams on the upper stretches of
the Mekong River have caused fish catches in Cambodia to fall by up to 20 percent
in some years, and said the large investment in Kamchay might be a way for China
to curry favor with the Cambodian government.
The Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on its dam building program
in Cambodia and around the region.
Other dam experts, however, dispute Tana's theory and say China is backing the dam
because they have the experience to pull off huge construction projects. Between
1949 and 1990, China built 86,000 hydro dams, including 22,000 "great dams,"
according to 2002 research into the Manwan Power Plant conducted for Oxfam Hong Kong.
Those who have followed China's dam industry offer words of caution to Cambodia.
"My advice to every government: before they build the dam, they have to do EIA
and SIA [social impact assessments] as much as possible, and they have to listen
to NGOs," said Zhuang Li, administrative officer for Green Watershed's Kunming
"Then the government has to compare the advantages and the disadvantages [of
a large dam] and see which one has more benefit," Li said.