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Government signals need to study hydro options now

Government signals need to study hydro options now

C AMBODIA'S Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy says donors must be asked for money

now to study the feasibility of building the Sambo dam in Kratie. Sambo has been

touted as the site for the first dam on the Mekong River.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has before it a plan to build a 30-km long, 35m

high, 3,300 megawatt dam in Sambor, costing as much as $10 billion.

Cambodia has put forward a "softer" suggestion - a 20-km long canal, with

a concrete "barrage" on the mainstream - costing $700m and able to generate

465 megawatts.

Both the Cambodian National Mekong Committee (CNMC) and the Ministry of Energy are

supporting the smaller plan, saying that the environmental impacts would be less.

Critics say however that the MRC is driven by Thailand, and to a lesser extent Vietnam,

and could pressure a weaker partner such as Cambodia to agree to the bigger project.

Proof of this, they say, is that the MRC's work program inlcuded the "big dam"

option for Sambo even after Cambodia had submitted its prefered smaller plan.

The ministry's Secretary of State Ith Praing said that Sambo was an important part

of the ministry's generation plans for long-term hydro-power. Surplus power would

be sold to Vietnam, he said.

Praing indicated that already, a private three-company dam-building consortium had

expressed interest. He also said the World Bank had been asked for money - almost

$1m, according to the MRC - to begin a feasibility study.

"For long-term power, we have to look at hydro projects," Praing said.

Canadian dam builders Hydro Quebec, and a second consortium, were about to study

the 120-megawatt Kamchay dam in southern Cambodia, he said.

Sambo is described by Praing as a "run-of-river" dam with impacts more

minimal than those likely from the larger MRC proposal. Cambodia's hydro options

must begin soon because of the time it would take to build such dams, he said.

CNMC director Khy Taing Lim said: "There is a big potential [for electricity]

but we don't know the environmental impact of the flooded areas. We don't want to

flood the region... all this needs investigation."

"The environment is important, yes," he said, "but I give you one

simple question: People need to cook their rice. With what? They take the trees,

but then we say no, don't touch the trees.

"We need electricity, we need to develop," he said.

Taing Lim said Cambodia could learn from the mistakes of Thailand and Laos.

In northeast Thailand, a dam completed in 1994 on the Mun river - currently the biggest

of the Mekong tributaries to be dammed - has prompted criticism, demonstrations and

escalating social and economic costs.

The World Bank and the MRC said the 17m-dam was to have been an "exemplary,

run of river" design, with water flowing barely impeded through a concrete dam.

The reality, say environmentalists, is that the river has been blocked.

Local communities say the fisheries on the river have virtually been destroyed. A

concrete fish ladder built later - designed to let fish swim up and over to

the reservoir - has not worked.

When the Thai government approved the dam - and later when the World Bank agreed

to fund it - 249 families were to have been affected and compensated. That figure

last year reached 2,932 families, and could now be as high as 5,500 families, and

rising.

Pak Mun contributes 0.04 percent of the power used by Thailand, and NGOs are now

working on cost analyses to prove the dam's "rate of return" - the ration

of costs to benefits - is so low as to have been outside the legal limits.

US-based activists International Rivers Network, during a recent trip to Cambodia,

urged that similar experiences - where they say benefits are exaggerated and costs

hidden from decision makers and local communities - should be brought to the

attention of the Royal Government so the same mistakes could be avoided.

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